The X-Men and the Legacy of AIDS

By Jackson AyresSeptember 21, 2016

The X-Men and the Legacy of AIDS
IN MARCH 2016, Hillary Clinton memorialized Nancy Reagan by describing the deceased former First Lady as a “low-key” advocate for AIDS research and prevention. According to Clinton, “because of both President and Mrs. Reagan — in particular, Mrs. Reagan — we started a national conversation, when before nobody would talk about it.” Backlash against these comments was swift, fierce, and fully justified. As the public record makes painfully clear, the Reagan White House, including Mrs. Reagan, was conspicuously uninterested in acknowledging the AIDS crisis, let alone combating it. Clinton’s remarks and the furor they provoked have implications beyond their relationship to the Reagans’ appalling record on AIDS. This recent controversy indicates how public memories of AIDS and activism are being revisited and contested, as well as highlighting the long history of silence that provides the backdrop for this rethinking. Silence structured responses to the AIDS crisis well into the 1990s — and arguably has continued to do so in more subtle ways to the present day. This history of silence and public invisibility extends into representations of AIDS found in popular culture, including comic books.

To be sure, several comics and graphic novels have addressed AIDS frankly and with sophistication. Judd Winick’s Pedro and Me (2000) is one noteworthy example. But Pedro and Me — which recounts Winick’s friendship with AIDS educator Pedro Zamora, whom he met when they both appeared on MTV’s early reality TV show The Real World — arrived after the height of the AIDS crisis. Moreover, as a single-author text in an autobiographical or confessional mode, Pedro and Me can be placed within a line of self-consciously literary graphic memoirs — including Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980–1991), Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000), and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006) — that, despite undergirding an emergent comics canon, are not necessarily typical of the form. In what follows, I consider how mainstream superhero comics, the genre that dominates public perceptions of comic books, addressed AIDS in the 1990s, when the crisis — and its public erasure — were still ongoing.

Of course in order to undertake this project we have to look for something other than direct, explicit representations of AIDS. Popular cultural forms like comics tend to address social concerns obliquely rather than directly, by way of what Michael Bérubé has called displaced meditations. With this in mind I’d like to argue that comics’ most prominent displaced meditation on AIDS appeared throughout the 1990s in Marvel Comics’s enormously successful X-Men franchise, a constellation of comics (and licensed media) that feature super-powered mutants long understood as allegorizing various forms of social marginalization. The X-Men franchise’s displaced meditation on AIDS circulated around a specific narrative device, the Legacy Virus, introduced in 1993 and featured in the main story lines or subplots of the franchise until 2001. Ramzi Fawaz, in the epilogue to his recent study The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics (2016), briefly addresses Legacy, describing it as “a fictional mutant disease akin to the AIDS virus that unravels the genetic sequence of its host, degenerating her body and her powers until death.” The virus, Fawaz continues, “was not simply a disease but a powerful material expression of the mutant race’s ugly inheritance: a legacy of xenophobia and violence.”

Legacy’s depiction in the X-Men comics of the 1990s merits attention because it illustrates how, despite appearances to the contrary, anxieties over HIV/AIDS manifested themselves in superhero comics. Potentially more interesting are the radical, critical possibilities for grappling with disease and identity that such a displaced meditation, in contrast to more straightforward or realistic representations of AIDS, made available. Fawaz alludes to this radical potential of superhero comics via his term “popular fantasy.” According to Fawaz, popular fantasy “describes the variety of ways that the tropes and figures of literary fantasy (magic, superhuman ability, time travel, alternate universes, among others) come to organize real-world social and political relations.” On one hand, the comics featuring Legacy tended to evince sentimental liberal humanist attitudes toward AIDS, at times even reinforcing homophobic reaction. Understood in the light of popular fantasy, on the other hand, the moments when X-Men was at its most outlandish, eschewing even the pretense of mimesis, provided opportunities for more daring, even radical, interrogations of the AIDS crisis.

Prior to X-Men’s Legacy Virus story line, few characters with HIV or AIDS had appeared in mainstream comics. DC Comics introduced two HIV-positive superheroes in The New Guardians (1988–1989) by Steve Englehart and Joe Staton, an ongoing series about an international superhero team spun out of DC’s Millennium (1988) crossover event. In The New Guardians, Peruvian hero Extraño — whose homosexuality is implied but never explicitly asserted — is HIV-positive, and his Jamaican teammate Jet also contracts the virus after she is bitten by a vampire with the ridiculous but revealing name The Hemogoblin. After the short-lived New Guardians, HIV-positive heroes effectively disappeared from DC’s books for the next decade, though in the early 1990s the company ran one-page public service messages in which their characters expressed support and sympathy for AIDS victims. The publisher’s first major HIV-positive hero did not arrive until 2001, when Kevin Smith and Phil Hester introduced Mia Dearden, a.k.a. Speedy, a teenaged runaway turned sidekick for Green Arrow. At Marvel, the Hulk’s friend and pseudo-sidekick Jim Wilson, nephew of superhero the Falcon, was revealed as HIV-positive in Incredible Hulk #388 (1991), only to die in Incredible Hulk #420 (1994). Image Comics, at the peak of its popularity in the early 1990s, produced two HIV-positive major characters within their creator-owned stable of franchises: the superhero ShadowHawk, created by Jim Valentino; and the supervillain Chapel, created by Rob Liefeld.

Notably, Jim Wilson, ShadowHawk, and Chapel were all heterosexual African-American men. DC’s Extraño and Jet were also people of color, and Smith and Hester’s revamped Speedy was economically dispossessed. This small set of HIV-positive superheroes therefore reinforced the association of HIV/AIDS with marginalized communities while also refusing, since Extraño’s sexuality was suggested but never asserted, to represent and in turn legitimize homosexuality and queer sexual identities. Of course, the male homosexual identity so closely associated with HIV/AIDS has its own history of unspeakability within superhero comics, one long preceding the AIDS crisis. From Fredric Wertham’s sensationalist reading of Batman and Robin as a gay couple in Seduction of the Innocent (1954) to the recent fan-driven #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend social media campaign, queer relationships in superhero comics have overwhelmingly existed as counter-readings relying on subtext. Or, as with X-Men, queerness appears in comics by way of analogy.

Co-creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby came up with the concept of X-Men’s mutants, who manifest their abilities at puberty, as a shortcut explanation for how the characters acquired their powers. But their more novel idea was to make mutants a persecuted minority, dedicated to protecting those who hate and fear them. In the comics, as in the recent movies, many humans see individual mutants as weaponized bodies, and mutantkind itself as an existential threat to human supremacy. The series has included stories about laws requiring mutants to register with a federal database, about hate crimes against mutants, and about mutant-hunting drones called Sentinels. In a widely viewed TED lecture on representations of disability in pop culture, Michael Bérubé notes that the 2000 X-Men live-action film construes its heroes as “gay, gifted, Jewish kids with disabilities.” This assessment points to the overdetermined quality of X-Men: the franchise amounts to a loose, elastic parable for acceptance, since 1963 put in the service of youth culture, Jewishness, racial or ethnic identity more generally, sexuality, and disability, among other categories. Though the ongoing serial text that makes up the X-Men saga operates as a metaphor for acceptance in general, it tends to align itself with different specific movements, coinciding with shifts in the broader culture. By the 1980s, X-Men had clearly registered the influence of gay rights activism: the 1982 graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills features the debut of a villain, the genocidal Reverend Stryker, whose condemnations of mutants as “abominations before God” echo homophobic discourse. Stryker was adapted for 2003’s X2: X-Men United, a film — directed by gay filmmaker Bryan Singer — that highlighted its queer allegory through a pivotal “coming out” scene involving the young mutant hero Iceman and his family.

The Legacy Virus itself debuted at the conclusion of “X-Cutioner’s Song,” a 15-part story that ran from late 1992 through early 1993. This tale, as with X-Men continuity in general, is breathtakingly convoluted. In simplest terms, “X-Cutioner’s Song” spotlights the villain Stryfe, who has traveled back through time from a dystopian future to enact an intricate revenge upon his parents, the founding X-Men members Cyclops and Jean Grey. Though Stryfe’s plot is thwarted in the end, a coda reveals Stryfe’s final vengeance: one of his co-conspirators, Mr. Sinister, opens a canister from Stryfe’s lab that supposedly contains valuable genetic material, but in fact holds an engineered virus that affects only mutants. This virus, now released, is named Legacy and leads to a plague that decimates the mutant population before eventually affecting humans as well. The Legacy Virus became an intermittent plot device throughout X-Men comics for nearly a decade. Legacy was cured in a 2001 story, but in the intervening eight years over two dozen established characters were infected, about half of whom died. The Legacy Virus also featured in the popular X-Men Saturday morning cartoon and two video games, so it was a major part of the X-Men narratives of the 1990s, reaching a relatively wide audience.

Legacy’s physical effects clearly invoked AIDS: its symptoms were skin lesions, fever, cough, weakness, and ultimately death. Images from the story line of bedridden mutants covered in sores and coughing up blood echoed depictions of AIDS victims in the culture at large. Within the series, the seemingly incurable disease also intensified the climate of fear around mutants. X-Men antagonist Graydon Creed, bigoted leader of the fascistic Friends of Humanity, declared the virus a godsend, and sick mutants were ostracized by humans and fellow mutants alike. At times, Legacy formed the basis for the main plot of the various X-books, but more often it lingered as a haunting presence.

Legacy’s depiction offers a compelling example of how AIDS was comprehended in the popular imagination of the 1990s. First of all, Legacy and by extension AIDS were positioned as threats: impersonal forces that indiscriminately inflicted suffering compounded by the majority population’s indifference. As this suggests, the Legacy narrative was animated by an underlying liberal humanism. An early victim of the virus was Illyana Rasputin, the sister of the popular character Colossus who had previously been — and, many plot twists later, is now once again — an X-Man in her own right under the name Magik. A farfetched plot contrivance had teenage Illyana reverting to childhood prior to contracting Legacy, whose devastating effects were thus given added pathos through the protracted death of a child. Uncanny X-Men #303 (1993) was dedicated to the X-Men’s response to Illyana’s final moments and the beginning of their grieving process. This issue encouraged empathetic identification. But by telling the story from the perspective of neophyte X-Man Jubilee, it asked the reader to identify not with the victim of disease but rather with the uninfected people who witnessed suffering. Indeed, Illyana hardly spoke at all in the issues featuring her as a child infected with Legacy. She was a voiceless and powerless victim the reader was expected to mourn. In this way, X-Men’s depiction of Legacy/AIDS relied not only upon a heteronormative and ableist point of view, but also upon a tradition of sentimental realism going back at least to Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

This liberal humanist approach to the disease was made explicit four issues prior to Illyana’s death in a scene featuring Professor X (Charles Xavier), the X-Men’s then-leader. At that point in the series Xavier was still “closeted,” pretending in public to be a human while nonetheless serving as an outspoken advocate for mutant rights. In a televised debate, Xavier directly cited HIV/AIDS in his call for human-mutant harmony, declaring that “one need not be a victim of AIDS in order to feel compassion” for those afflicted with the disease. Notably, Xavier put his appeal in terms of emotional response — feeling compassion — rather than political action, consistent with his argument’s references to non-black people who “understand apartheid is wrong” and “people of all religions [who] are rightfully horrified and repulsed by … the Holocaust.” In all three examples, the X-Men’s leader implores an unoppressed audience to feel sympathy for the suffering of others. Xavier explicitly articulated these comics’ liberal humanist faith in shared humanity, one divorced from public policy or political activism, in his closing statement: “When the time comes that people are restricted to ‘helping their own’ is the day, I believe, there will be no hope for any of us.” The Legacy saga on the whole evinced Xavier’s sentiment, cultivating compassion and mutual recognition across identity categories through invocations of a liberal humanist sense of shared humanity.

The series’s liberal generosity, moreover, was compromised by outright reactionary elements. After all, the mutant villain Stryfe engineered Legacy as revenge against the perceived wrongdoings of his parents and the mutant generations before him. Thus, the series at least in part understood Legacy as a consequence of mutant irresponsibility and vice, an echo of the 1983 decree from Reagan Press Secretary Pat Buchanan that AIDS is “nature’s revenge on gay men.” And, since Stryfe was the leader of the terroristic Mutant Liberation Front, the virus was aligned in the story with mutant extremism. After Illyana died, her brother Colossus was so disillusioned by Professor X’s ineffectualness that he abandoned the X-Men. In the conclusion to the multi-part story “Fatal Attractions” (1993), Colossus defected, joining the cause of the X-Men’s militant archenemy Magneto by becoming one of the authoritarian villain’s Acolytes. A cure for Legacy, “Fatal Attractions” seemed to suggest, was needed primarily to prevent mutants from embracing radicalism. The Legacy saga thus offered two seemingly opposed orientations toward AIDS: on one hand, it depicted disease as the result of irresponsible decisions, while on the other it described it as a source of undeserved individual suffering that merited witnessing and empathy. While these two orientations — disease as self-inflicted and disease as contingent — might appear opposed, both crucially exemplified mainstream heteronormative responses (one conservative, one liberal) to AIDS. Both orientations effectively depoliticized the disease.

In the Legacy story line, the limitations of such moves sit in tension, however, with frequently fascinating displaced explorations of what it meant to live at the time of the AIDS epidemic, especially for the queer populations most profoundly affected by the disease. Notably, these moments tended to occur when X-Men unreservedly embraced the mimetic infidelity of its superhero genre. In other words, the moments when the Legacy story line moved away from the realist sentimentality exemplified by Illyana’s death into more outlandish territory were also the moments when X-Men’s displaced meditation hinted at a more productive, and comparatively radical, queer perspective on disease and persecution.

Take, for example, two of Legacy’s earliest victims after Illyana. Following her death, the next mutant to die of Legacy was Revanche, who true to form for the series had a bizarre and confusing backstory. Revanche was the code name for the woman otherwise known as Kwannon, a former ninja assassin for the Yakuza, whose DNA and consciousness had been — thanks to the machinations of inter-dimensional sorcerers — spliced together with those of the British X-Man called Psylocke. Consequently, Revanche and Psylocke shared physical features as well as halves of the same two minds. Put slightly more simply, their appearances and consciousnesses were blended and only barely distinguishable. In X-Men #20 (1993), Revanche appeared at the X-Men’s mansion seeking help, explaining that she had contracted Legacy. She stayed with the group until her death, meaning that her counterpart Psylocke lived alongside Revanche — who was, in a sense, also her — as she withered and died. The surreal trauma of this experience led Psylocke to act erratically. Subject to bouts of violent anger, she attempted, with no obvious motivation, to seduce her engaged teammate Cyclops. Another early victim was a duplicate body of Jamie Madrox, known in the series as Multiple Man. Madrox’s mutation allowed him to produce replicas of himself that he could later reabsorb. When a duplicate contracted Legacy, Madrox learned that his duplicates were not automatons, as he previously thought, but singular beings separate from himself. Legacy thus afflicted a duplicate of Madrox that was at once an aspect of himself and a distinct individual.

In the cases of both Revanche and Madrox, doubled characters — one infected and the other healthy — metaphorically captured the condition of living, especially for gay men, at the height of the crisis. Revanche and Madrox’s stories hinted at how members of a community threatened by both a plague and an uncaring majority might begin to perceive themselves regardless of their health: with the possibility of disease and the need for a cure so intertwined that identity is doubled, and one finds oneself feeling simultaneously afflicted and unscathed. X-Men’s strange and complicated plot developments, exemplified but not limited to the cases of Revanche and Multiple Man, do not diminish or trivialize the seriousness of Legacy as AIDS allegory. On the contrary, they provide the moments when the radical imagination of superhero comics emerges, allowing something at least approaching a queer subjectivity to become legible. The well-intended but vexed liberal humanism undergirding the representations of Legacy in X-Men comics, then, was offset or countered by the series’s more baffling and peculiar plot developments, in the sense that such expressions of popular fantasy provided an exploratory space for alternative or more capacious notions of identity and experience to emerge.

Along these lines, Legacy’s aftermath is also worth considering. The disease was cured in a contrived 2001 story in which Colossus, hoping to atone for his actions as one of Magneto’s Acolytes, sacrificed his body and life to test an experimental cure for the disease. As a result of Colossus’s sacrifice, all of those inflicted with Legacy were instantly and permanently cured. The first consequence of this deus ex machina was that the hundreds of sick mutants under Magneto’s care on the island of Genosha, which had become an island hospice, regained their health but remained devoted to the militant mutant, thus providing him with a small army to advance his cause. This plot turn hinted at heteronormative anxiety over, perversely, a gay community no longer threatened by AIDS. A mobilized minority community that was no longer losing its fight against the deadly plague might transform from a site of sympathy to a source of danger.

But three years later, in a story called “Gifted” written by showrunner and filmmaker Joss Whedon, we learn that Colossus’s body, after being genetically altered by the experiment to cure Legacy, was harvested by a biotech company seeking to develop a suppressant for the mutant gene itself: a serum called Hope. Countless mutants who were tired of oppression and persecution voluntarily took an injection of this so-called cure. The cure for the Legacy virus therefore led directly to a different — socially acceptable and even appealing — method of extermination. Hope, moreover, was developed at Benetech, a corporate laboratory with some sinister alliances, which can be taken to suggest how a post-AIDS queer identity is now threatened by absorption into neoliberal hegemony — what Fawaz describes as the foreclosing of alternative political imaginaries that come from gays and lesbians’ full “assimilation into the capitalist economy and the wedding complex.” Read this way, tracking Legacy from “X-Cutioner’s Song” to “Gifted” suggests both the extent to which modern queer identity was forged, not exclusively but in significant ways, within the crucible of HIV/AIDS, and the uncertainty over that identity’s continued transformative political power in a post-AIDS landscape.

In sum, then, Legacy should be understood as a displaced meditation on HIV/AIDS, one that reveals the way popular culture, and popular fantasy in particular, grappled with the epidemic in opposition to a public culture of silence. This archive, as Clinton’s misguided and distorting remarks about Nancy Reagan make clear, merits excavation. Fawaz suggests as much when he expresses ambivalence over the post-AIDS-era attempts by Marvel and DC to offer more diverse representations of ethnic, gender, and sexual identities. Ongoing gestures toward greater representation of LGBT and other minority or marginalized groups in mainstream comics, Fawaz fears, indicates “a trend toward diversification without creative world-making practices that has undoubtedly dulled, if not wholly undermined, the radical political edge of comic books in the contemporary moment.” Major comics publishers “now promise audiences the pleasure of seeing their own diverse identities […] represented in their favorite superhero comics, but no sense that the heterogeneity of those identities could and should change the world.”

In other words, superhero comics’ queer mutants and monsters, and their radical implications, are now threatened by the “contagion” of assimilation. While the X-Men comics featuring Legacy, like 1990s superhero comics in general, are now generally taken by fans as embarrassingly juvenile, progressive comics creators and fan communities currently embracing diversity of representation could perhaps give even more teeth to their cause by revisiting, and taking seriously, the baffling weirdness and confusing inaccessibility of these older comics.


Jackson Ayres is assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.

LARB Contributor

Jackson Ayres is assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. His articles have appeared in Twentieth-Century Literature and Literature/Film Quarterly, among other venues. He recently curated and contributed to a cluster of articles with the theme “Comics and Modernism,” which is forthcoming in Journal of Modern Literature.


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