[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]
Conceived as a comic book that would stand on its own entirely apart from the continuity of the serialized monthly, “God Loves, Man Kills” is a 64-page self-contained story by Claremont and artist Brent Anderson involving a bigoted Christian preacher, William Stryker, on a crusade against mutants. Both its religiously motivated antagonist and its sci-fi MacGuffin (a machine allowing a brainwashed Charles Xavier to telepathically find and kill every mutant in the world) were deemed strong enough ideas to be used as the basis for Bryan Singer’s X2.
Because “God Loves, Man Kills” ran without the Comics Code seal, Claremont had license to go further with his writing, a freedom that manifests itself most memorably in the surprising use of the word “nigger” by Kitty Pryde early on, attempting to make a point to her black dance teacher, Stevie Hunter, about the hurtfulness of the word “mutie.” This attempt to assign the “X” metaphor so explicitly to a single minority group is problematic on any number of levels, and the particular audacity of trying to shore up the story’s metaphorical bite by the use of such an inflammatory term seems awfully misguided on Claremont’s part. That Stevie is humbled by Kitty’s rhetorical posturing – her final thought that Kitty “was right” suggesting that Stevie has been taught some kind of moral lesson – is absolutely too much.
That scene is meant to set the tone for the rest of the book, and indeed – unfortunately – it does. Political naiveté and heavy-handed metaphor are the order of the day here. William Stryker is actually a decent idea for an X-Men villain; in a regular issue of the series, he’d do fine. His philosophy – that if man is made in God’s image, then mutants are made in Satan’s – is a good one for a comic-book villain. Stryker is cut from the same cloth as Bolivar Trask, the original creator of the Sentinels from the Silver Age. Claremont, however, wants to use Stryker to make big, profound points about religion and hypocrisy, and the character’s one-dimensionality simply won’t support it. The issues Claremont wants to talk about are too complex to be dealt with so directly by tights-adorned superheroes. It is one thing to subtly allude to darker themes – as done so well in Uncanny X-Men #160, also illustrated by Anderson – but Claremont is taking the sledgehammer approach here. Intoxicated by the freedom to use Christ imagery and potentially offensive language, the author does not effectively integrate this new vocabulary into the X-Men palette. The result is a ham-fisted attempt at depth, whose occasional moments of gauche explicitness seem arbitrary at best, and offensive at worst.
The book’s saving grace is Claremont’s characterization of Magneto, which – despite the graphic novel’s place outside of the series’ chronology – seems to be very much a continuation of the ending of Uncanny X-Men #150. In that magnificent issue, it was suggested that a profound change in the character’s mindset had taken place. In “God Loves, Man Kills,” that does indeed appear to be the case, as he now seems to consider the X-Men his allies. Magnus’ characterization here is quite shrewd – miraculously as subtle here as in any other Claremont-written use of the character. Given the freedom to be as explicit about Magneto’s past as a Jew at Auschwitz as anything else, Claremont seems almost intuitively restrained instead. Upon his learning of Stryker’s plan to kill off mutants, Magneto’s response is not any kind of long tirade, but instead one single, brutal line: “Once more, genocide in the name of God. A story as old as the race.”
Claremont’s accomplishment with Magneto once again emerges as his greatest triumph as a writer of the X-Men. The garish aspects of “God Loves, Man Kills” demonstrate that Claremont was by no means immune from straying (albeit with good intentions) into poor taste when trying to paint a powerful metaphorical context for the X-Men. Yet he managed – for an entire decade – to strike a perfect balance with Magneto, alluding to the character’s connection with the Holocaust only intermittently, and always with a few deft and simple strokes. And the character’s Judaism was kept even more subtle, never once explicitly alluded to, yet clearly there for those (like Rivka Jacobs) who know what to look for.
With a genre as garish as superheroes, the very idea of giving a character depth by making him a Holocaust survivor seems grotesquely inappropriate. That Claremont ultimately succeeded with Magneto, and did so with grace and intelligence, is testament to his talent. That Claremont is also capable of the embarrassing excesses of “God Loves, Man Kills” is proof that his success wasn’t a foregone conclusion.