I've been a fan of the X-Men for a very long time, they are my favourite comic book team and characters and I relate to them in a way that I don't any others. While my comic book collection contains an awful lot of 1970s/80s/90s issues of Uncanny X-Men, I don't have many of them in graphic novel form, mainly because I find it very hard to read those old issues in a collected volume, something about the old art form doesn't translate well to the glossy printed page for me. One novel I recently acquired was the Chris Claremont piece, God Loves, Man Kills.
God Loves, Man Kills is considered an X-Men classic by many fans and heralded as one of the best X-Men books of all time. It is surprising then that it has taken me so long to get around to read it.
God Loves, Man Kills really is the prototypical X-Men story and it is the most influencial tale to date, forming the direction these characters would go in for decades. The story takes the subject of racism and uses it as a metaphor for the acts of terrorism and destruction taken against Mutantkind. As a result it is a book that is explicit and particularly balsy for the 1980s. Also the polictics explored in this book still feel very relevant today.
While the book was written by X-Men legend, Chris Claremont, the art was done by Brent Anderson, a man who wasn't a regular penciler on the X-Men title at the time. But this is pretty good thing as it takes the X-Men away from the relatively safe and cosy world they inhabited in their own ongoing book and injected some gritty realism into proceedings.
God Loves, Man Kills tells the story of a very religious conservative man, a man who would go down in X-Men history, the televanglist, Reverand William Stryker, a man who uses passages from the bible to rally the general public against the mutant race. A way that Chris Claremont makes Stryker feel very real is that Stryker generally believes what he is doing is right. He does see mutants as the offspring of the Devil. He feels like he has been put on the Earth to do God's work and exterminate all mutants. He is frighteningly real.
Stryker has no mutant powers and he can't take on one X-Man, let alone a whole team. On the surface, he doesn't seem all that intimidating. But Stryker is perhaps the most dangerous villain the X-Men have ever faced as his fight is a political one and his superpowers are his words and beliefs. His ultimate success doesn't hinge on whether he can best Collossus in a fight, but how can turn an entire world with just his words. His whole character allows this book to take a very adult turn and he is all the more terrifying for it.
God Loves, Man Kills also allows us readers to see what sets the X-Men apart from characters like the Fantastic Four, The Avengers and Spider-Man in how they are seen as pariahs. The difference between them and the X-Men is the idea of genetic mutatation. The strange and dangerous powers the mutants possess are only one part of that hatred. The deeper reasons of that hatred humans have for mutants lies in identity and tribalism. It plays on the fact that anyone, your family, your friend, your neighbours could be mutants and you might not know it. Mutuation blurs the lines of in-groups and out-groups drastically and they create a startling new criteria for those groups.
It is the uncertainty element of mutation that is the biggest reason of fear of humans. The real fear comes not from what their powers might do to you but what their existance means to you and your place in this world. And should you discover you are one them, you're place is suddenly endangered.
"Mature", is perhaps the most apt description of this book and it isn't hard to see how this book would be more appealing to the adult end of the comic book spectrum. It is very dark in its themes instead of violence and gore. The ideas presented by themes of prejudice, morality, responsibilty, crowd control are really thought-provoking. And as the main final conflict comes from ideology and not a full on fight, we don't see a final knock-out from a central character.
The X-Men in this era often had a great cast of characters whose lives intersected with each other in interesting ways. God Loves, Man Kills is another good example of this as Kitty Pryde AKA Shadowcat reacts to the mutant slurs thrown at her in a different way to Piotr AKA Collossus, who has no religious beliefs whatsoever.
We've got Nightcrawler who is a devout Catholic, well versed in religion and dogma. Wolverine doesn't care about any of it and just goes which ever way the wind blows against mutants. Cyclops is the best field leader and holds true to Xaviers outlook and hope for future peaceful existance. Claremont does a tremendous job of giving each character involved a different outlook on the material you are reading. And then there is Magneto being Magneto but it is hard not to agree with his outlook with the events unfolding here.
While overall this book is great, it is by no means perfect, there is the shocking backstory that Claremont gives Stryker which is as dark as it is unnecessary. Stryker was once a military man who was caught in an explosion with his pregnant wife while driving through the desert. The shock caused his wife to go into labour and when the baby was born, it was immediately evident that it was a mutant. Stryker then proceeded to kill both his wife and newborn baby and then tries to commit suicide through another explosion before surviving it.
I'm sure the idea was to give some insight into the character's personal tragedies and to show the extent to which he will meet an enemy but the backstory only serves to distract from who holy-image and that is what makes his followers obey him. There are also some rather unnecessary fake out deaths that were neither shocking or needed.
On the art side of things, there were a few pages from Anderson which were quite hard to follow. Generally it is quite easy to see panels transition from one to another but there are moments when things get a little messy and the action gets muddled. But despite these few flaws, it is brilliant overall and adds a needed grittyness to the proceedings.
Reading a story like this in 2018 was a rather surreal experience because the messages it is trying to convey actually feel a lot more relatable today. The book seemed like a cautionary tale about our world powers at the moment and are current political climate despite being 36 years old! Prejudice towards minorities, fear mongering by some conservative icons, the leveraging of religion to gain political power and causual bigotry bubbling to the surface and becoming a focal point of public concern. The echoes of today's realities are all dishearteningly apt.
This is a story that is scary for all the right reasons...