Chris Claremont and Michael Golden created Rogue in 1981, and she made her debut in Avengers Annual #10. What makes Rogue interesting to me is her place of origin, the fictional Caldecott County in Mississippi. Speaking with the Clarion Ledger in 2016, Claremont told Jacob Threadgill, “I felt, why should Louisiana get all the fun? … (Mississippi) was a place where the racial divisions and relationships were viewed in perhaps more stark terms than in and around New Orleans.” This is a really interesting quote, specifically the juxtaposition of “fun” and “racial divisions.” Rogue could be a character that addresses issues of racism in the US South; however, those issues become subsumed within the nostalgic moonlight and magnolia myth, dashed with a pinch of Faulknearian Southern Gothic.
This image of a bygone South appears again and again in Claremont’s depictions of Rogue, most notably in Uncanny X-Men #11 when Rogue and the other X-Men square off against Horde, a villain that plays on the team member’s wants and desires, making them live within their own dreams. Rogue’s hallucination takes her to the Old South, where she gazes in upon herself at a party at a plantation house. She muses, “The Old South, as it was in song an’ story. Almost as much a fairy tale land as ‘Camelot,’ complete with plantation princess: me.”
Missing from the fleeting images in Uncanny X-Men #11 is any discussion of “racial divisions. In fact, all of the people in the panels are white, no enslaved individuals encroach upon the scene. This omission is telling, especially if, as Claremont says, that the “racial divisions” in Mississippi existed in “stark terms.”
Another instance of this mythologizing, idyllic South occurs in Uncanny X-Men #185 when we see Rogue on the banks of the Mississippi River. Here, John Romita, Jr. and Dan Green’s panels show the lazy, idyllic landscape of Caldecott County, nestled along the drifting waters of the great lumbering Mississippi River. We see nature, not tension. We see Rogue, and no one else, until Storm arrives on the scene. Even then, no discussion of the county’s racist past enters into the narrative. It is almost as is Caldecott County existed outside of history, untouched by he “racial divisions” that Claremont mentions.
In describing Caldecott County, Claremont writes, “This is farming country, where once cotton was king and stately mansions lined the river. Setting a standard for style and affluent, gracious living that was the envy of the world. It was a way of live people believed would last forever.” Cotton had long been dethroned, “and most of the great estates [had] fallen into ruin.” Glaringly absent from these descriptions are those who made cotton king and who built the mansions. The enslaved individuals do not even have a mention here, they do not exist in the narrative. Who are the people that believed this way of life would last forever? Who are the people who made this way of life possible?
It can be easy for readers to move past these absences because the scenes described above are fleeting. However, when Rogue receives her own series, they become even more glaring? Robert Rodi’s Rogue #1-#6 from 2004 sees Rogue travelling back to Caldecott County to confront her past, a past that haunts the town where she grew up, playing on the townspeople’s fears. Noticeably absent, again, is any discussion of “racial division.” Instead, the narrative focuses on Rogue coming back and eventually connecting with her family.
Even within this narrative, there could be an exploration of “racial division.” Yet, Rodi does not incorporate it. In fact, there are no Black characters in the arc, and their absence denies the reader any serious engagement with the South’s history and present. The spirits that haunt the citizens of Caldecott County originate from suggestions and derive from events in the people’s lives. For instance, one person tells the spirit, “Tina, I’m sorry. Shouldn’t have been drivin’. Never meant for you to die.”
These suggestions arise from the past, from the actions of the people in Caldecott County. With this premise, opportunities exist for an exploration of “racial division” within the South, specifically in a space such as Mississippi. The fact that Claremont, and later Rodi, do not even address these issues is very problematic. How can one write about a rural Mississippi town, employ spirits from the past, and fail to even have one mention of the South’s past? How can such a narrative fail to have any Black characters? Claremont, as Threadgill writes, “not[ed] that the X-Men’s tension between humans and mutants was an allegory for racial tension in the United States.” If this is the case, shouldn’t the South’s past become part of the narrative?
Within a space such as the US South, a space that has been used in various ways, in various decades, as a site of racial strife, allegorical narratives portraying racism through mutants and humans does not work. Instead, it obfuscates the real and brutal history of Mississippi and the South. It provides readers, in many ways, with an easy way out, allowing them to see the allegory in whatever manner they wish to see it. If Rogue directly confronts “racial division,” then readers do not get to hide behind allegory. They come face to face with history and its continued impact upon or present lives.
Rodi’s arc ends with Rogue travelling to a fabricated world that her mother created, a world of idyllic serenity where she can reside in peace throughout eternity. Rogue must confront her mother to keep the apparitions from attacking the citizens of Caldecott County, and as she travels through her mother’s dream realm, Campbell, her guide, tells her that her mother “used up almost all the dreamstuff in this realm to recreate the world she left behind. Only better see. ‘Cause now it was really her dream life she was livin’. All the heartache erased and the trouble spots bricked over.”
The narrative of Rogue having to travel to a dream realm to confront her mother feels like a metaphor for Rogue’s history. She exists within a dream, an idyllic setting devoid of “racial division.” The problem, though, is that this is not reality. Reality is that racial violence and terrorism reside(d) within Mississippi and the South. Failing to acknowledge that, in even a passing manner, works to play into the idea of the South as pastoral landscape devoid of history. It’s a new narrative of the Lost Cause, underneath a veneer of fantasy and a supposed allegory for race relations in the US.
While a little heavy handed, Clarmont and Brent Eric Anderson’s X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills graphic novel addresses these issues in a better manner. Still problematic on some levels, it does a good job of fore fronting, sometimes subtly, the racism and oppression underpinning the narrative. Ultimately, characters such as Rogue, and even Gambit, need to have a reckoning with the history of the region they hail from. Until then, the risk of romanticizing and exoticizing the South will continue, and the myths created and reinforced through these narratives will fail to address “racial divisions.”
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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