In light of the spate of revelations of countless acts of sexual harassment and/or assault in entertainment and politics and what they reveal about the toxicity of masculinity in our culture, I’ve been thinking about the normalization of abusive attitudes in superhero comics. The revelations don’t shock me. The fact that these revelations run the gamut of possible reputations among men—from our pussy-grabbing president to powerful Hollywood movie producers to the guy who played Stuart Smalley-turned-progressive-senator to respected newsmen to NPR hosts to the creator of one the most popular “girl-power” shows of all-time—should make clear that such behaviors and attitudes run deep. In other words, this isn’t about “good” men versus “bad” men. It is about men, period. That being said, the figure of the good-intentioned ally revealed as exploitative predator is of particular interest because they benefit from both the network of justifications and defense that guards sometimes even the most virulent of offenders, and from the broad reputation of their work. Meanwhile, their actions taint that work for the countless other people that contributed to it. I know some version of auteur theory is still popular among many fans, but take Joss Whedon for example: Whedon didn’t film, edit, write, draw, act, and direct his work all by himself, so is it fair to dismiss it all by association? People have to make their own choices about the media they are willing to support, but inappropriate behavior from a creator taints the work of a whole swath of people in a way made obvious by fans even having to ask themselves those questions.
Nevertheless, we can see the attitudes and relationships that make a Joss Whedon or Hugo Schwyzer possible reflected in popular narratives, often unremarked upon, or justified as simply part of the “dark side” of men. This benefit of the doubt claims that since these men work to resist their worst nature, you can’t hold it against them when they succumb to it. I think that word—”nature”—underwrites a lot of the post-game analysis of this behavior. It establishes abusive or manipulative behavior as the standard and any effort (whether successful or not) to refrain from acting that way as deserving praise. The ugly irony is that men like this can often use that very praise as bait for their exploitative hunt. The progressive pose, in fact, helps these men be in the position to harm women. It is the other side of the coin to the reactionary chivalrousness of more conservative “nice guys.”
When Whedon’s ex-wife’s letter came out I was near the end of my full read-through of Marvel’s Micronauts comics series. It ran for 59 issues, but near the end there was also a crossover four-issue limited series, X-Men and the Micronauts (1984), co-written by Bill Mantlo and Chris Claremont, and drawn by Butch Guice. I made sure to read these as well, and while I was prepared for the problematic portrayal of Professor X’s dark desires thanks to an episode of Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men, in light of the revelations in the news, I could not help but think how Professor X is an example of this phenomenon. Despite his repeatedly questionable actions—from the morally gray to the outright evil—he remains “a good guy” and used in contrast to Magneto’s politically motivated violence as an example of reason and peaceful assimilation. Since then, for every reputed creep that has been outed and ousted—like Harvey Weinstein—there has been at least one purportedly “good,” and definitely popular, guy, who has also been sanctioned for a range of inappropriate, and in some cases potentially felonious, actions—from Al Franken to Charlie Rose to Garrison Keillor. In light of this, the notion of Professor Charles Xavier, good guy leader and mentor to the freedom-fighting X-Men as someone who engages in behavior that ranges from merely inappropriate to outright abusive and sexually creepy, is one that needs some consideration.
As Jay and Miles remind us in Episode 33: “Crossoverload,” X-Men and the Micronauts is not the first time an “evil” version of Professor Charles Xavier has shown up in the pages of X-Men and related books, and it certainly wasn’t the last. In fact, elements of both the 1996 Onslaught event and Grant Morrison’s introduction of Cassandra Nova in New X-Men seem cribbed off the limited series. There was also an evil Xavier in the Brood Saga (Uncanny X-Men #156 to #167) about a year before X-Men and the Micronauts came out, and even when not specifically evil, he has behaved in manipulative, cruel and inappropriate ways that cast serious doubt on how good his default identity really is.
The earliest example of Professor Xavier depicted in a way that suggests the depth of his inappropriate possibilities happens way back in Kirby and Lee’s X-Men #4 (March 1964). In it, Xavier takes extra care to warn Jean Grey/Marvel Girl of the potential danger of the mutant they’ve detected and that the X-Men are about to go seek out. When she replies that he shouldn’t worry, and to have faith that he has trained them well for their mission, his inward response tells us more. “Don’t worry?” he thinks. “As if I could help worrying about the one I love!” Let’s keep in mind that at this point Jean is supposed to be around 16 (maybe younger), and while we don’t know how old Charles Xavier is, he is definitely significantly older, and usually depicted with a mien that suggests middle-age. In this scene, Xavier seems to understand that his role as someone in authority, a teacher to these young people, means he cannot act on his feelings. However, the Lee-penned dialog also seems to suggest that it’d be okay if he were not the leader of the X-Men. (And to sweeten the pot, adds some self-loathing borne of his disability, reinforcing the toxic ideas that disability undermines masculinity). Despite Lee and Kirby quickly dropping this plot complication (thank goodness), it nevertheless suggests what was acceptable and normalized in that era and establishes the patriarchal framework that would shape X-Men’s characters, relationships, and plots by alternatively succumbing to and resisting it.
In X-Men vol.2 #53 (June 1996)—near the beginning of the Onslaught Saga that saw the combined consciousnesses of Xavier and Magneto secretly manifest in the eponymous foe—Jean is sent mentally back through time by Onslaught to witness the scene from the outside. Now with the telepathy she had not developed yet back in the 60s, she is able to “hear” her mentor’s confession of love. It seems that writer Mark Waid decided, rather than continue to ignore that confession after 32 years, that its absence was actually evidence of a long deep-seated repressed love for his student. It was this repression (along with his repression of his “every other negative emotion”) that led to the creation of Onslaught, who then tries to take over the world, or destroy it or whatever…I’ve never read all the way through those comics. Yet, in this issue (which I sought out just to write this post), Onslaught’s dialog makes both his sense of entitlement and victimhood clear. When Jean asks him who he is, he replies—eyes aglow with psionic flame—“I am frustration.” Not only does this incarnation of Professor X try to use his thwarted desires as justification for his actions, but he weaponizes that frustration to use against Jean. By revealing his secret shame, he seeks to undermine Jean’s confidence in Professor X’s moral framework and collapse the supposed father-daughter relationship they have in hopes of convincing her to abandon all her principles, join up with him, and thus fulfill that very desire. It is a not uncommon pick-up artist move, revealing a kind of faux-vulnerability as a way to exploit it. It may fail in the comic book—Onslaught is clearly the villain—but nevertheless that thwarted desire is meant to make his transformation understandable to every comic reading dude who ever complained about “the friend zone.”
This kind of repression of male desire is not an uncommon framework for writing “noble men” and serves both to do that ennobling and to lay the groundwork for their redemption when they ultimately succumb. These narratives work to reinforce how incredibly difficult it is for men to hold those desires in; that any man can hold them back at all is praiseworthy. And, as such, failure on the part of any man—especially powerful ones with plenty of opportunities to abuse that power—is supposed to be understandable. Such desire is often described in animalistic and “natural” terms, as latent and essential.
But it is not as if Waid simply cherry-picked that Silver Age event and made use of it; like it or not Professor X has been written as a sexual being through the long run of X-comics. We meet many of his lovers and discover his unknown children (one of whom he fathers with his former patient, in a move that only lends credence to the skeevy Professor X paradigm). Can a man who fakes his death, wipes people’s memories, listens in on others’ thoughts, sleeps with his patients, and lusts after his students be trusted? Can he really be considered “good” under those conditions, despite his purportedly progressive political project?
X-Men and the Micronauts would have us believe that he can, even as it provides the clearest evidence that Professor X’s entitlement and power emerges from his sense that he is repressing his desire for what he could have if he was willing to simply take it. In other words, the credit he thinks he deserves for being “good” cancels out anything bad he might do. It is the classic justification of lots of serial abusers and sexual predators in positions of power and standing in society. “All the good I do exonerates me of anything bad I do that I deserve to get to do anyway.” It is essentially this kind of attitude that maintains people like Bill Clinton and their enablers.
The premise of the mini-series is that a hedonistically sadistic malign cosmic force called “The Entity” has shown up in the Microverse and is threatening to destroy everything it can’t control, while taking glee in rampant killing on a planetary scale. What is the Microverse? It doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this post, but basically it is a subatomic parallel dimension. Micronauts was a space-opera comic that mostly took place there and ran from 1979 to 1984. It was written by Bill Mantlo, with art ranging from Michael Golden to Howard Chaykin to Butch Guice. It is named for our group of rebel heroes, who are a microscopic Star Wars rip-off. The Micronauts have met an X-Man before—Nightcrawler ended up helping the tiny freedom fighters in Micronauts #37 (January 1982) which took place in the X-Mansion’s Danger Room. As such, there is already a connection in place when the Micronauts’ arch-nemesis, Baron Karza—temporarily allied with the Micronauts against such a terrible foe—arrives in Westchester seeking the source of Entity’s power. After the typical fight required of crossing over superheroes, the X-Men agree to be shrunk down and accompany Karza back to the Microverse to rescue the Micronauts who’ve been captured by the Entity and to help defeat him. Despite the effort to arrive at the X-Mansion from the Microverse, there is no effort to pinpoint the actual source of the Entity’s power. It is immediately forgotten. It is never explained how that power manifested in the Microverse to begin with.
For the sake of clarity, for the rest of this post I will be referring to the typical Marvel world as the macroverse, in order to distinguish it from the Microverse.
What no one knows at this point is that (for reasons never explained) the Entity is actually an aspect of Charles Xavier. It is yet another incarnation of his “evil side” made manifest. This “side” of Xavier is so terribly evil that you’d think his polar opposite, the version of the professor we see in most X-Men comics would be saintly in contrast, but careful and/or long-time readers know the actual Professor X is not so saintly, so rather than a mirror opposite, the Entity can easily be read as a version of “real” Charles Xavier, one who openly indulges his desires and the narcissism that already underwrites so much of his behavior. The fact that the Entity is dressed in basically the same garb as we have seen Xavier adopt in his astrally-projected self-image—as when he battles the Shadow King in X-Men vol. 1, #117—reinforces this sense of the “evil” side just being an aspect of his true identity.
Even before the X-Men get involved in the Microversal battle against the Entity, the comic book mini-series makes clear that Professor X’s telepathic powers are intrusive and always on the edge of violating the privacy and agency of all those around him, who rely on his leadership and moderation. When Kitty Pryde inwardly complains about all the homework he’s given her and Illyana, Professor X overhears her thoughts and then blames her for “thinking too loud,” rather than his own lack of discipline in keeping his mind closed to the private thoughts around him. He also admonishes her for the very thoughts. This kind of victim-blaming is troubling, especially for a man in a position of power over a teenaged girl.
Moreover, Professor X’s claim to have freedom and equality for mutant-and-humankind as his goal is undermined by his own apparently weak control of his powers and dark desires. How is it possible for Kitty Pryde, the rest of the X-Men, or the New Mutants (who also appear in this series) to experience “freedom,” if there is always a danger that their thoughts are monitored by the professor? Furthermore, despite his valuing of mutant freedom, Professor X is possessive of his goal and accepts only his own methods of achieving it. I have a t-shirt I purchased from the Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men store that reads “Magneto Made Some Valid Points,” and while various iterations of that joke exist among comics fans, at its heart is potential truth. Charles Xavier’s dream is less about freedom and quality, and more about control, and demanding that mutantkind fight, not for their own justice, but for assimilation into human social conventions that makes demands on how and when mutants use their powers and what they should look like, in order to curb their political identity. The very premise of the original X-Men with teenagers adopting secret superheroic identities in order to protect a world that hates and fears them is based on this preference for control. It controls the mutant image. It controls the students’ access to and expressions of their own identities, and demands that they remain hidden except to challenge the “evil” mutants who are unwilling to acquiesce to Xavier’s vision.
This aspect of control is apparent in the fate of the Micronauts who have been captured by the Entity. First, they are psychologically broken down by having to face their worst fears, and then once freed of that trauma by the man who made them suffer it, they succumb to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. And, while we, the readers, may not yet know the true identity of the Entity, the fact that he makes the Micronauts dress up as versions of the original X-Men is a big hint. Later, he also takes control of the miniaturized X-Men. That is, save for Kitty who ends up accidentally body-swapped with Baron Karza. In that case, the Entity has really taken over the consciousness of an evil Darth Vader-like scientist-overlord in the body of a 14-year-old girl. This body swap explains why Kitty seems a little too happy to obey the Entity’s murderous commands, but this very murderousness endears Kitty to the Entity. Heck, “endear” is too weak a word. He is basically turned on by it. This leads to a very uncomfortable scene in issue #3 (March 1984). In it the Entity drapes himself over Kitty’s body as she lays back on a divan, dressed in the quintessential space opera skimpy slavegirl outfit. The dark Xavier wants to reward her for her bloodthirst. Karza panics at the thought of the gladiator-garbed villain satisfying his “sybaritic lusts” upon him. The way Guice draws the exchange really accentuates the sexualization of a teen, and the gross desire of Xavier’s proxy. Karza describes him as “lascivious” and that is not an exaggeration. As a corrupt and abusive man of power himself, Karza is in the position to recognize it. The suggestion is that in a moment, the Entity was about to get sexual with Kitty, that some part of Professor X wants her and thinks of her in that way, even if the comic’s events make sure he is interrupted.
In Micronauts and the X-Men #4, when the Entity is now in control of the Professor’s body back in the macroverse, he essentially psychically rapes Dani Moonstar. He chides his own “good side” for denying himself the “pleasure” of the “pretty young playthings” Xavier surrounds himself with, and then mentally gives the teenaged girl a “sensual caress across her very soul” that leads her to collapse “in the throes of indescribable pleasure.” The scene evokes the kind of conditioning, grooming, and recruitment that pedophiles do to children. He says, “If you are a good little girl and aid me in dominating the New Mutants…I will reward you with more of the same.” In other words, using her to gain new victims of his lusts.
Despite the degree of evil of this portion of Charles Xavier (and as if the rapey stuff were not bad enough, he also destroys several entire planets in the Microverse, essentially killing billions of people), by the end of issue #4 the status quo returns, and the story makes no effort to redeem him. It does not even suggest there is anything for which to seek redemption for, despite it being his responsibility that these things happened. It was his power that accomplished them. This is particularly disconcerting, as Jay Edidin points out in “Crossoverload,” in light of what happened to Jean Grey in the Dark Phoenix Saga and the editorial mandate that she must pay for what she did as her evil self. Jean destroyed one planet, but here Professor X kills an unspecified number. Why does he get to get away with “it was my evil side” defense, but Jean does not?
There are two easy answers.
The first is that the Dark Phoenix Saga had a different theme and focus, and more potential for productive reading. Despite its space opera trappings, it is a passion play of sorts, focusing on Jean’s sacrifice and the dangerous results of manipulating and suppressing a powerful woman. X-Men and the Micronauts, on the other hand, is just another space operatic adventure designed to boost sales of a failing book by joining its characters with a booming one. (Micronauts would go on to be cancelled just two issues after returning to its main storyline).
The second answer is even simpler: sexism.
Women have to answer for their actions—even just the perception of their actions—while men have many more opportunities to not have to. In other words, as I suggested by way of introduction to this post, for men to violate social norms and impinge on the autonomy of others is a social norm. The desires they give in to are naturalized as a means of undergirding how difficult it is for them to not go around assaulting women. This perspective assumes that essentially all men would act this way if given the chance and that this is evidence of its normalcy, not evidence that this hypervaluation of men’s desires needs to change. It suggests that society needs to conform to that inevitability. The notion of the “open secret” is an example of that, as is the whisper campaigns women must undertake to try to save themselves.
Yes, every once in awhile, a man ends up in such a bad position that he cannot avoid the violation of the “open secret” protocol and is made to nominally deal with his transgressions. Such examples, however, only serve as sacrificial figures that visibly sate a desire for justice through an exceptional case, allowing for countless others to continue and not doing much to address the underlying cultural sickness. The current backlash against the number and frequency of men being revealed as harassers and sexual predators as a “witch hunt,” is an example of a stop gap measure against the threat to that entitlement. This perspective would have us believe that a couple of handfuls of powerful men losing their jobs is a crisis, but the damage to countless victims isn’t.
Ultimately, X-Men and the Micronauts tries to sweep away any culpability on Professor X’s part by claiming that “we all” have an evil side. It is spurious reasoning to suggest that just because we might all be capable of such thoughts that he is not responsible if some part of him acts on them. It is his power that makes such evil uniquely accessible to him. I don’t mean only his psychic powers, but his power as a teacher, activist, and moral leader. In X-Men and Micronauts #2 (February 1984), Roberto De Costa, aka Sunspot, snaps a towel at Dani Moonstar’s ass, as the New Mutants return from a morning swim. He clearly does not respect her bodily autonomy. While he is only smacking her ass by proxy, taking part in what many might call boyish pranksterism, I think the scene inadvertently demonstrates the ways in which boys are encouraged to see girls’ bodies as available to them and subject to their whims and desires. In the same scene, Professor X is in a deep slumber, as the Entity has lured him into a state where he can have even more power from X’s brain and putting those same desires to work towards devastating control and destruction in the Microverse. Xavier’s responsibility to shape Roberto’s values is literally shirked so that he might enjoy his taboo pleasures, thus implicitly encouraging the young men in his charge and failing the young women.
At this point, Professor X seems like an irredeemable figure, or perhaps, as Jay Edidin suggests in a more recent episode of Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men, the only way to make him work is to focus on the gray area in which his morals operate and explicitly explore the tension between his supposedly good intentions and the reality of his abuse of power and its consequences. Consider for example, the revelation in Astonishing X-Men (vol. 3, #12 – August 2005), that Professor X chose to ignore the fact that thanks to Shi’ar alien technology, the Danger Room had mutated and achieved sentience. Faced with this turn of events, he submerged that consciousness and bound it to serve the X-Men, rather than deal with the inconvenience of a being with agency. Danger, who apparently identifies as female, is just another woman that Xavier puts second to his political goals, actually betraying that dream in the process. In Astonishing X-Men vol. 3, #11, when Danger and Professor X are going head-to-head, Whedon even writes in an acknowledgement of Xavier’s dark side that reinforces his skewed and self-centered perspective on his own character. Danger says to him, “[The X-Men] don’t have the slightest idea of who you really are, do they?” To which he replies, “I’d like to think that Jean knew…and understood.” This imagined special relationship with Jean that grants him some comfort about his behaviors is in line with those creepy behaviors and seeks to use one of his potential victims of sexual grooming to affirm his feelings. As far as I can tell (I haven’t read the issues), Professor X eventually gets away with this crime against Danger (see X-Men: Legacy #223-224 – 2009). She abandons her quest to kill him after they are forced to join forces against space pirates, and he makes feeble excuses for his actions. He claims he was told by the Shi’ar that her sentience was not possible and that he was unaware of what she’d become, but that doesn’t really excuse his responsibility for the consequences and for hiding the fact from the rest of the X-Men. Nevertheless, the narrative makes sure to works towards his exoneration, not his actually engaging with the pattern of his behavior.
This is the pattern of Charles Xavier and the excuses that he either makes for himself or that narrative framing provides for him. This is the pattern of bad-acting men of power in our culture benefiting from patriarchy’s long held influence to shape what is acceptable from men and how their stories are told. You don’t need to be a telepath to know that this mindset infects way too many people, men and women, who even when they don’t directly harass and abuse, find ways to ignore or excuse it; it is just that the world of mutants and superheroes makes that control explicit. There are other examples in superhero comics. I keep thinking about how the casually sexist attitudes in such comics allowed for the miscommunication and assumption that led to Hank Pym (Yellowjacket) physically abusing Janet (the Wasp) that would go on to define his character. There is no room in this already overlong post to explore that, so maybe some time in the future. Nevertheless, it helps us to consider how normalized these attitudes are in the genre and points to other places to look for it.