Recently, someone suggested I take a look at Chris Claremont and Brent Eric Anderson’s X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (1982). After reading, I came away noting the number of similarities between the 36 year old graphic novel and the present moment. In an interview on the 35th anniversary of its publication, Claremont and Anderson, along with interviewer Alex Abad-Santos, talk about the correlations between God Loves, Man Kills and the present moment. Today, I want to look at the book and pull out some specific scenes that, sadly, still feel very much relevant to our current cultural moment.
God Loves, Man Kills was, until 2003, a non-canonical one off X-Men story. The narrative revolves around the Reverend William Stryker’s desire to rid the planet of undesirable “muties.” He sees mutants as an abomination and as an affront to God’s plan. As such, he launches a crusade to eliminate them, specifically in the novel from America. To achieve support, Stryker deploys a rhetoric of fear and nationalism where he paints mutants as abominations, animals, and an infestation on society.
Stryker’s use of language to persuade his audience and to position mutants as inferior to himself and others shows up when he debates Professor Charles Xavier on ABC News’ Nightline. Opening the conversation, Xavier points out that “mutants per se are not a monolithic group, possessing one set of attitudes or goals. They are individuals–as are we all–and should be judged as such.” Xavier’s comments point to the fact that language and labels do not, no matter how much we want them to, describe entire populations of individuals. No culture or population is monolithic. Each is made up on “individuals.”
However, Xavier’s comments fall flat because when Stryker begins to speak because rather than using logic within his argument Stryker relies on fear of the “Other” to stoke the flames prejudice. Stryker responds, “The ‘individuals’ of yours possess some pretty terrifying powers. How are we common folk to defend ourselves against them?” Rather than recognizing the humanity of all, Srtyker positions the mutants as outsiders who threaten the very society he, and his followers, live within. Stryker does not present any space within this configuration for cultural exchange; rather, he only presents it as a forceful invasion meant to destroy the “right” (i.e. white supremacy) way of life.
Stryker continues by quoting from an ad hoc committee on mutant activities: “The ever increasing numbers of mutants poses a clear and present danger, both to the United States and to the socio-political order if the world as we know it.” This same rhetoric exists today in the ways that Trump speaks about immigrants, and specifically immigrant children. He consistently dehumanizes individuals calling them an “infestation” or even “animals.” He says that immigrants come to America to rape and murder. And, while in England, he stated that immigration is “changing the culture.”
Like Stryker, Trump plays on a rhetoric and language of fear that lacks logic and factual information. This rhetoric is powerful because it relies on people’s fears about what they may lose if cultural change does occur. It plays on their fears that they will become displaced in the social hierarchy. Fear is a powerful tool, and God Loves, Man Kills highlights this when immediately after Stryker’s comments we see a panel on the Nightline control room. There, one director asks another, “You think Xavier’s making a convincing case?” The other responds, “Yeah, but who’s listening? Sryker knows television. . . and he’s playing to the audience. . . . Too bad. . . ’cause the man’s message is pretty damn scary.”
Later, during Stryker’s speech at Madison Square Garden and his confrontation with the X-Men, the full impact of Stryker’s beliefs and views comes to the forefront. Before the speech, the host of Nightline, John Cheever, tells the television audience,
A growing number of religious leaders. . . including fundamentalist evangelical ministers who only a short while ago were Stryker’s friends and allies. . . have begun to question the direction of his crusade. It is one thing, they note, to criticize government policy and the moral state of the nation, quite another to single out a specific group of people and brand them literally less than human. To many, it betokens an attitude uncomfortably reminiscent of that held in Nazi Germany against the Jews.
Interestingly, Cheever’s comments have a present-day correlation with Trump, Republican leaders, and a majority of evangelicals. Writing about the relationship between Trump and Evangelicals, John Fea states, at the end of the piece linked above, “Why do so many evangelicals believe in Donald Trump? Because they privilege fear over hope, power over humility, and nostalgia over history.” This is the same impetus that drives Stryker’s followers in God Loves, Man Kills. He stokes the fear that his audience feels about being overtaken. Rather than seeking to engage with individuals, they seek to violently confront them.
Listening to Stryker, a senator in the audience asks his staff member, “Does the president have any idea what Stryker’s saying?! Does he support it?!” The staff member relies that the president does know, but he also “believes the reverend’s views deserve a hearing.” Do Stryker’s views deserve a hearing? This is an issue that has been ongoing lately in regard to the issue of free speech on college campuses and elsewhere.
The senator realizes the dangers of letting Stryker stoke the coals of fear. After Magneto arrives, removing the roof from the Garden, the senator’s staff member tells him they should leave. The senator replies, “No, dammit! See. . . Magneto’s replaced the roof, good as new! He’s made an entrance, not an attack! But listen, Merce. . . to what Stryker’s saying! That’s the real danger!” The senator, like the director earlier, realizes the danger of Stryker’s words and that Magneto, the supposed threat, does not mean him or the audience harm unless they buy into Stryker’s rhetoric.
When the X-Men confront Stryker on stage, Scott Summers (Cyclops) explains that Stryker’s rhetoric creates fear among himself and other mutants while at the same time it plays on the fears of his audience. Summers states, “Thanks to you. . . and people like you. . . mutants live in fear every day of our lives, and sometimes, those lives are very short. Less than a week ago, two children in Connecticut were murdered, Stryker. . . condemned solely for an accident of birth.” Stryker responds by claiming that he is “an instrument of the lord” and that “whatever a man’s color or beliefs, he is still human.”
Countering Stryker, Summers echoes Xavier’s comments on Nightline that mutants are not a monolithic group. He continues by asking, “Are arbitrary labels more important than the way we live our lives, what we’re supposed to be more important than who we actually are?! For all you know, we could be the real human race. . . and the rest of you, the mutants!” Summers points out the power of language to create an identity and to create labels that subjugate individuals to those in power. Stryker does not buy this argument and points his finger at Kurt Wagner (Nightcrawler) stating, “Human?! You dare call that thing. . . human?!?” Stryker’s question shows the power of his words to create the X-Men as the “Other.”
Throughout his speech, two policemen in the crowd listen to Stryker proclaim that God made “the human race” and that mutants are “an affront to that divinity.” To this, we get a panel of two policemen in the crowd. One tells his partner, “Crowd’s eatin’ it up. I dunno, partner. That preacher scares me.” Like the senator and the director, the policeman notices the danger of Stryker’s words. When Stryker pulls a gun on the X-Men, the officer shoots him in the shoulder, saving the X-Men from Stryker’s bullets. The officer displays Summers’ call to action that he tells Piotr “Peter” Nikolaievitch Rasputin (Colossus) earlier in the issue when he says, “If we don’t stand up to [Stryker’s ideas]. . . here and now. . . then all we’ve done is delay an inevitable holocaust.”
The same call to action exists today when we hear, no matter where, language and rhetoric that positions others as inferior or in a position of subjugation. It exists when we hear individuals labeled as “infestations” or “animals” out to destroy society. It exists when we hear comments that cultural exchange changes the nostalgic culture of the past. It exists today just as much as it did in 1982, and God Loves, Man Kills highlights the fact that words are just as dangerous, if not more so, as actions.
Stay tuned next post where I will look at a couple of more aspects of Claremont and Anderson’s graphic novel. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.