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Actually, Stan Lee Didn’t Base Marvel’s Prof. X & Magneto on Malcolm X & Martin Luther King Jr.

What part of MLK’s ‘nonviolent’ philosophy do you not understand?

By Paco TaylorPublished 5 years ago 9 min read
Composite illustration by Paco Taylor (STP Design)

Despite what a legion of now grown-up X-Men cartoon and comics fans of the early 1990s have come to believe (and what Screen Rant erroneously claimed as a “verified” fact), Stan Lee, the co-creator of Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men, didn’t base the creation of Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Yeah, sorry to break it to you, “True Believers,” but this just simply wasn’t the case.

The revelation may be super sour candy for Millennials and others who’ve come to accept this post-90s pop culture myth as the geek gospel. But it must be reported that any similarities between the 1960s civil and human rights icons and the mutant leaders of powerful rival factions in the pages of X-Men comics is purely coincidental.

Okay, it was actually intentional. It just wasn’t in any way the work of Stan Lee.

Echoes of the stark ideological differences that once existed between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X that have been woven into X-Men comics mythos is an outgrowth of the stories written not by Stan Lee “at the height of the African-American civil rights movement,” as goes the legend, but by later storytellers who wrote stories for the X-Men in the 1980s and 90s.

Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s Original X-Men

X-Men #1, September 1963 • Credit: Marvel Comics

Created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, the beloved mutants born with powers and abilities far beyond those of normal Homo sapiens made their first appearance in the pages of X-Men #1 (September, 1963). Recruited to defend humanity from destructive mutants by the powerful mutant mentor, Professor X, the original X-Men team was made up of five members: Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman, Angel and Beast.

Since the X-Men’s first appearance, the mutant band has expanded exponentially, and its members have risen to become some of the most popular characters in comics.

For a while, in fact, it almost seemed as though anything Marvel put an X on turned to gold or… holo-prismatic chromium. (See: X-Factor, X-Force, Generation X, Weapon X, Astonishing X-Men, Amazing X-Men, All-New X-Men, X-23, x-cetera, x-cetera, x-cetera.)

But there was a time, like, say, the first seven or so years of the X-Men’s existence, when their book wasn’t all that popular.

Yes, this includes Stan and Jack’s foundational run on issues #1 through #19. And after they exited the struggling title to work on other Marvel books, different writers and artists took a few memorable, but mostly not so memorable turns on X-Men.

The 'Axed' Men

X-Men #49, October 1968 • Credit: Marvel Comics

From issue #20 to issue #44, writer Roy Thomas wrote X-Men with art by artist Werner Roth. From issue #45 to #54, Gary Freidrich and Arnold Drake alternated on the writing, with the majority being penned by Drake. Different artists drew and inked these particular tales, among them the legendary illustrator/graphic designer Jim Steranko.

With issue #55, Roy Thomas returned and was joined an issue later by then hot new artist Neal Adams. Together, this dynamic duo cranked out an exciting series of stories. With issue #63, Adams exited the book and X-Men #66, written by Thomas and drawn by Sal Buscema, would wind up being the very last new X-Men story Marvel published for a while.

Well, for about half a decade, actually.

Due to poor sales performance, Marvel finally gave its X-Men title the ax with issue #66 (March 1970), right along with a few other struggling books. As mentioned, the title had never been popular, but had managed to develop a small and loyal cult. These fans made known their displeasure over the cancellation by way of a little old thing called hate mail.

To stave off an angry nerd apocalypse, eight months later Marvel resumed publication of X-Men with issue #67 (December, 1970). But the book would only feature previously published tales, and would be published just six times per year (bi-monthly) instead of 12. And that remained the debased state of X-Men comics for the next five-plus years, until the spring of 1975. That’s when something… unexpected happened.

Marvel’s All-New, All-Different X-Men!

Giant-Size X-Men #1, May 1975 • Credit: Marvel Comics

In May 1975, a reboot of Marvel’s mutant super-team hit stores in the form of Giant-Size X-Men #1. This “senses-shattering 1st issue” offered kids a brand-spanking-new X-Men story that featured Professor X bravely trekking across the globe in his wheelchair to recruit a bunch of new mutants for a revamped team comprised of international members.

Replacing and expanding the original X-Men team—nearly all of whom had resigned, except for team leader Cyclops—were Nightcrawler of Germany, Canada’s Wolverine, Storm from Kenya (but actually born in Harlem), the Native American Thunderbird, Japan’s superhero Sunfire, Colossus of Russia, and the former X-Men villain Banshee, who hailed from Ireland.

Editor/writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum made up the creative team that handled this second genesis of the X-Men. Under their imaginative direction, the new X-Men took off to the living island of Krakoa in their new Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird jet to save the old X-Men from seemingly certain doom. In the process, they ushered in an exciting new era of X-Men comics.

Two months later, in August 1975, Marvel ixnayed on the lame reprint stories and began publishing “all-new, all-different” mutant tales of suspense with X-Men #94. And editor Len Wein very wisely handed off the storytelling duties to an enthusiastic writer who promptly began shaping the X-Men into the characters that fans across the globe know and ‘heart’ today.

He Had A Dream

Chris Claremont, scribe of future past • Composite illustration by Paco Taylor (STP Design)

With X-Men #94 (soon to be renamed Uncanny X-Men), British-born writer Chris Claremont began his incomparable run writing stories for Marvel’s now much-beloved mutants. Along the way, the writer also made indelible marks on a number of other Marvel books. Included among them are Iron Fist, Marvel Team-Up, Power Man & Iron Fist, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, Wolverine, The New Mutants, Excalibur and too many others to name.

But Claremont’s seminal works are the tales written during his matchless 17-year run on Uncanny X-Men. The most lauded of these being stories like The Birth of Phoenix, The Dark Phoenix Saga, Days of Future Past, and the standalone graphic novel, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills.

It’s within the last of those named that the foundation for the X-Men’s MLK vs. Malcolm X vibe that fans have incorrectly credited to Stan Lee was laid.

“[I] did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He was just trying to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist. He was trying to defend mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly, he decided to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course, but I never thought of him as a villain.” — Stan Lee

Despite what Stan Lee would later say about the character he co-created with Jack Kirby back in 1963, in the stories he wrote that used Magneto, the character wasn’t striking back at prejudiced bigots or fighting in the noble defense of mutantkind. Lee’s Magneto was a true comic book bad guy who believed mutants to be what he haughtily referred to as “Homo superior,” and that mutants should therefore rule over the genetically inferior Homo sapiens.

The Magneto written by Stan Lee in the 1960s was very much a… mutant supremacist. He was a villain in the traditional comic book sense of good vs. evil. And it’s not for nothing that Stan Lee cast Magneto as the leader of—that’s right, True Believers—The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, the archenemies of superhero good guys, the X-Men. (Sorry, Stan.)

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (Marvel Graphic Novel #5), 1982 • Credit: Marvel Comics

It was Chris Claremont who gave Magneto an extreme makeover in the early 1980s that remade him into a sympathetic villain with a semi-noble mission, but terroristic methods that ran counter to those of the equally powerful mutant Charles Xavier.

Claremont also re-wrote Professor X and Magneto as formerly having been friends in their younger days, and retconned a poignant origin story in which Magneto was a survivor of the Jewish Holocaust.

ret·con | ˈretkän | verb. to revisit (an aspect of a fictional work) retrospectively, typically by introducing a piece of new information that imposes a different interpretation on previously described events.

It was also Claremont who rooted Xavier’s dream of humans and the genetically evolved mutants peacefully co-existing in the more iconic dream of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

In his introduction to X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (1982), Claremont details the inspiration for the story. He mentions the cultural shifts taking place in America in the 1980s, and the voices of intolerance that were on the rise, espousing views that—in varying degrees—openly rejected religious, cultural and even racial diversity. (Sound familiar, True Believers?)

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (Marvel Graphic Novel #5), 1982

Claremont also spotlights the election of Ronald Reagan and the wave of conservatism that came crashing down upon the country with his presidency. Along with it came a powerful undertow in the form of a conservative agenda to return America to its, allegedly, more traditional cultural views and moral values.

The writer says that the story of God Loves, Man Kills was also heavily rooted in two quotes that defined his adolescence. One from MLK, which Claremont says he’d use to describe his approach to the world of the X-Men: “I dream of a world where my children and their grandchildren will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

The other, a slightly less well-known quote taken from Ted Kennedy’s eulogy to his slain brother, Robert: “Some dream of things that never were and say, why? I dream of things that are yet to be and say, why not?”

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (Marvel Graphic Novel #5), 1982

It’s in the closing panels of God Loves, Man Kills that Xavier’s MLK-like dream to win the hearts and minds of those who fear or hate mutants crystallizes. Magneto invites Xavier to adopt his more extreme methods of looking out for mutants. But Cyclops quickly reminds his mentor that the goal, and the path taken to achieve it, is of equal importance, saying:

“You brought us together to fulfill a dream, Charles—one born out of hope and the noblest of human aspirations. […] The means are as important as the end—we have to do this right or not at all.”

And in the end, Xavier listens to Cyclops and declines Magneto’s invitation, telling their on-again, off-again foe that if the X-Men are willing to continue giving his dream a chance, he can’t abandon it—or them.

Magneto tells the weary-looking Xavier that he hopes that for the sake of both humans and mutants that their way will lead to peace. “But should you fail,” he warns with palpable menace, “it will be my turn.”

By Any Means Necessary

X-Men vol. 2 #1, October 1991 • Credit: Marvel Comics

In 1991, after Chris Claremont made a shocking departure from Marvel after the release of issue #3 of the re-launched X-Men (Vol 2), Xavier’s dream continued to be emphasized in tales penned by other writers. These include stories like “Dreams Fade” by Fabian Nicieza (X-Men Vol 2 #25), “Dreams Die!” by Nicieza (X-Men Vol 2 #41), “I Had a Dream” by Scott Lobdell (X-Men Vol 2 # -1), and “…A Dream Reborn” by Joe Kelly (X-Men Vol 2. #80).

And though ideological underpinnings of Malcolm X would simmer just beneath the surface of X-Men comics in the 1990s, it was really Bryan Singer, the director of the live-action X-Men movie released in July of 2000, who turned the knob on the allegory up to 11. This happened when a line from X’s famed “By Any Means Necessary” speech, delivered at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom in 1964, echoed from the screen.

The cleverly placed phrase would make faithful believers of the modern creation myth of Magneto and Professor X even more convinced that Stan Lee’s comic book co-creations had actually been patterned from the very start after Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. But they weren’t.

In later years, some would even find themselves inspired to canonize Lee in glowing tweets and internet memes as a subversive civil rights-era editorialist on race matters in America that he wasn’t. And, sad to say, it would probably take the stupendous might of Professor X’s telepathic power to change their made up minds about it now.

‘Nuff said.


About the Creator

Paco Taylor

Pop culture archaeologist. Content creator. Word nerd. Blogger. Fluent in geek speak.

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