X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and Brent Eric Anderson
Marvel’s X-Men franchise is long-running and crosses into so many different titles that it’s difficult to know where to start if you know only the movies, but want to start reading some actual comics. There are many excellent titles to start with, but the stand-alone 1982 graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills is the book I recommend for those who want the single best X-Men title that makes clear the thematic significance of the X-Men characters as outsiders persecuted for their differences.
Christopher Claremont’s story is not for those looking for light entertainment. He deals explicitly with the connection between religion and racism, as well as private shame and public persecution. In order to convey his themes, Claremont doesn’t shy away from one of the most disturbing facts of American history — that well-intentioned men and women, “good” Christians, owned African-Americans as slaves and killed those African-American men and women who they felt most threatened them in some way. I am not simply bringing my own politics to this story; I am giving a warning to the reader that this book is a serious one, because in the first three pages of the comic, we are forced to witness adult white “Purifiers” murder and hang two young African-American “mutants.” For many, three pages of story will make them close the book, but for those willing to follow Claremont’s story, a complex ethical narrative follows examining the twisted logic of racism and hate and murder.
The Purifiers are led by a popular Christian fundamentalist minister named William Stryker. When I first read this book, I was afraid that Stryker would be used as a one-dimensional villain who ended up representing a simplistic reduction of Christian beliefs. As somebody brought up in a Christian church, I did not find this fear realized. Stryker is not used by Claremont to represent ALL Christians. I would not be recommending this book if that were the case; rather, he represents anyone of any religion who justifies murder via his religious views. And for that reason, because of its broad real-world relevance, this book is still in print and praised by readers and critics to this day.
Even dealing with Stryker as a private man, Clarement creates impressive complexity. Stryker is given a back-story that I wish I could reveal here; there are two key facts of his past that are of importance. One of these secrets is something he feels great shame for; however, it is the other secret the reader is disturbed by because Stryker is not ashamed of it. What does and does not shame us about our past reveals much about our ethical views, according to Claremont, and Stryker’s secret past shows us his.
There are other aspects to this story that I like: One of Stryker’s Purifiers changes sides. Why does this change occur, and what will Stryker’s reaction be? Stryker uses the media to great effect, and he demolishes Professor Xavier, the X-Men’s father-figure and mentor, in a debate publicized on television. Clarement asks us to consider the role of media in public forums, and he implies that often the media is misused in disturbing ways by those with unethical agendas.
X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills is a serious work of literature and not for little kids; I teach it in my college classes, because college students today still find this book of great relevance. The current edition includes essays and interviews with the creators as well as some other bonus features. I truly enjoy and am amazed by Brent Eric Anderson’s artwork. This art will look dated to those new to comics; however, considering this book was published four years before Alan Moore’s Watchmen, I think we can be impressed with Claremont’s daring to take the themes of the X-Men and rewrite them for a more mature audience who wants to see such serious issues dealt with in a direct and complex manner. If you’ve ever wanted to read one X-Men title that focuses on the ethical significance of the characters, then X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills is the one to read.