Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. Professor X and Magneto. Two of the most powerful and influential characters in the sprawling X-Men epic, posed as ideological rivals capable of forming a tremendous friendship or terrible antagonism (depending on the reality and era). There are few more recognizable duos in superhero comics or popular culture, even, and now they’re back in the spotlight.
The first couple issues of the X-Men relaunch under twin titles House of X and Powers of X have placed this pair back in partnership with one another as they guide mutants towards a seemingly brighter future. Xavier has been reborn and is functioning as the leader and mastermind of the new mutant nation-state Krakoa. Magneto has accepted a consigliere-type role, working both as a figurehead for Krakoa and assisting Xavier with plans, both public and private.
That new status quo has recalled one of the oldest conversations about this duo, one in which their status in the oppression of fictional mutants is compared to very real civil rights leaders. It has been said, more times than can be counted, that Xavier and Magneto reflect the ideologies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively. Repetition never makes a thing more true, however, and it’s time to bury that particular conversation.
A Long, Familiar History
Before discussing that all too familiar comparison, it’s worth setting Xavier and Magneto within history. Almost every American recognizes their stories, largely thanks to two decades of X-Men films that primarily focus on their relationship, but what Fox Studios brought to the big screen was the culmination of decades of alterations and updates found in Marvel’s comics.
Magneto and Xavier both made their debuts in the pages of X-Men #1 in 1963, co-created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. While they have become known for their nuanced portrayals, those depictions were not obvious in early stories. Xavier functioned as a paternalistic guardian to the young teenagers who composed the X-Men. He offered advice and encouraged his wards to protect humanity no matter how much harm they inflicted on mutants, but did not articulate a clear philosophy beyond protecting life and stopping crime. Magneto was similarly cast into a familiar villain role, even leading a group labeled “The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants” in X-Men #4; he stated that his plans sought revenge or security from humanity, but were portrayed as nefarious, indefensible plots.
These broad characterizations continued until the arrival of writer Chris Claremont and the team’s relaunch in Giant-Size X-Men #1. Xavier was quickly transformed into a more bold and determined leader. He began appearing on television and engagement with the mutant rights debate became a key sub-plot for the character, including its use as the premise for the beloved comic God Loves, Man Kills. Magneto’s changes came more slowly after some early encounters with the X-Men in Claremont’s run. Between X-Men #150 and #200, a redemption arc was constructed beginning with Magneto reassessing his actions after almost killing Kitty Pryde. It was during this period that his history as a Holocaust survivor was brought to the fore, and Magneto was more deftly explored as an individual fighting for the rights of oppressed peoples, specifically mutants, and willing to use violent means to achieve his ends. These character developments provide the foundation for the pair’s historical comparisons, comparisons found in Claremont’s own words as he cited both King and X as inspirations in his writing.
Subsequent runs and film adaptations confirmed these depictions. Some stories, like the conclusion of writer Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men and the miniseries X-Men: Deadly Genesis, recast both men in more villainous roles that undermined their philosophies from the Claremont era. Magneto would become a drug-addicted terrorist with no concern for life (human or mutant) and Xavier would become a secretive manipulator who rewrote his student’s memories to make his ideas and plans more palatable. Neither characterization has lasted for very long, and it seems that in most forms of media their status as civil rights leaders with dueling philosophies has become the baseline by which all change might be judged.
Poor Analogs for Reality
It’s not difficult to see how Claremont might have used King and X as inspirations for revamping these characters. They are both charismatic civil rights leaders with dedicated followers and differing philosophies on how to achieve justice (and what that concept even means). Claremont’s interest in telling a story about oppressed superheroes clearly draws from the Civil Rights Movement that he experienced as a young American, as well. However, there’s a long distance between finding a source of inspiration and crafting a clear analog or parallel. Despite a handful of superficial similarities, Xavier and Magneto contort the work and legacies of these very real heroes as well as their relationship.
While both Xavier and Martin Luther King Jr. are coded as heroes, that’s about where the value of their comparison begins and ends. Xavier has never been invested in the core philosophies and strategies of King’s work. There is no religious underpinning to Xavier’s beliefs, an essential element to understanding King’s path to his own nonviolent beliefs and role as a national leader. Xavier doesn’t share King’s beliefs or strategies on how to obtain justice either. X-Men #1 introduces a paramilitary organization of teenagers dedicated to violently suppressing mutant revolts, a premise that has remained at the core of almost all of Xavier’s future teams. Xavier is only presented as the “good guy” insofar as he is willing to cooperate with human governments and work within existing systems, actions that do not match King’s emphasis on civil disobedience, refusing to abide by unjust laws.
Even the very nature of superhero comics undermines what is most significant about King’s style of leadership and philosophy of change. Nonviolence was not utilized as a strategy for purely philosophical reasons; it was an effective strategy as shown by Mahatma Gandhi in helping to end the British colonial domination in India. King sought an audience for protests so that American voters could witness moral atrocities and respond accordingly. The seemingly Sisyphean struggle for mutant rights, one that has not significantly improved since the earliest Kirby and Lee stories, constructs a false narrative about the efficacy and purpose of both King and Malcolm X’s work.
The comparison of Magneto to Malcom X is even more problematic. Casting them in the same role provides villainous connotations to the work of X, connotations that contain threads of racism and islamophobia. The notion that X was more violent than King emphasizes an unwillingness to subscribe purely to nonviolent techniques. However, the phrase “by any means necessary” found in many of his speeches is not a call for immediate violence but an expression that justice must be achieved, no matter the cost. It is not too different from King’s own rejection of a negative peace when seeking a positive peace, unwilling to accept the absence of tension if it means a lack of justice. Magneto’s characterization also fails to grapple with the many changes X experienced throughout his life, especially his final years in which he left the Nation of Islam and went on a pilgrimmage to Mecca. The hardline stances often provided by Magneto are, at best, caricatures of some of X’s earlier beliefs and fail to reflect the ideas found in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It is wildly inaccurate, simplifying and disparages the accomplishments and good achieved by X in life.
Beyond the specific, individual differences there is an even greater danger that lies in the articulation of their relationship as one between hero and villain. While superhero comics have sometimes portrayed Magento as a hero or anti-hero, the standard portrayal has focused on the X-Men as a superior version of mutant activism and Magneto’s efforts as being misguided or openly villainous. There is no way in which the inferiority placed upon Magneto on these stories can be extricated from how readers then perceive Malcolm X. It reduces one of the greatest civil rights leaders in history to a villain, based solely on an unwillingness to embrace King’s methods of nonviolence and civil disobedience. This caricature was utilized in the 1960s as both police organizations and media stirred fears about the Nation of Islam and its spokesperson.
There is also the important point that neither Xaveir nor Magneto are Black, and they are incapable of encompassing the complex history and systemic forms of impression found in studying the life of any Black American, not just this famous pairing. There cannot be a white analog for Black leadership.
Leaders Against Oppression1comments
These comparisons, when taken beyond a simple acknowledgement of inspiration, impact and alter readers’ perceptions of two very real men whose philosophies and work don’t resemble that of two white mutants at all. That’s what makes any insistence on continuing these comparisons ludicrous, as they undermine important understandings of what oppression in America means outside of a superhero comic book.
It’s time to leave a conversation that was already inaccurate when introduced in 1975 behind. Concepts like Marvel’s mutants and comics like House of X provide a valuable, fictional window into discussions of oppression and power. Xavier and Magneto are a key centerpiece to one such discussion as two complex leaders with very different ideas and strategies. They are unique figures independent of the United States’ history with race or the philosophies that have informed the modern era. There may be room for comparison, but any attempt to force this fiction to represent reality can only result in absurd outcomes. Rather than reduce two great characters and two great men into a single pair, we would all be better off reading the stories of all four, especially the pair whose words have actually changed our world for the better already.