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Revisiting for the First Time: I finally read ‘X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills’

God Loves, Man Kills, Nathan Reads (for the first time).

Welcome back to “Revisiting for the First Time,” in which our writers thoroughly examine a classic comic they somehow missed during its initial release. Does the title hold up? What made it so popular in the first place? Would it still succeed today? Remember: what’s old is always new again.

Title: X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills
Originally published as: Marvel Graphic Novel #5 (1982)
Creators: Chris Claremont (Uncanny X-Men) and Brent Anderson (Astro City)

What’s the Haps: This book was originally pitched by Jim Shooter, then the editor-in-chief at Marvel, as a strictly out-of-continuity tale that would have boldly opened with the death of Magneto. However, plans changed at some point after the departure of Neal Adams, the original illustrator on the project. Scripting duties were handed over to Chris Claremont, the man who wrote Uncanny X-Men for 15 years and introduced key elements and characters of the X-mythology still in use today (see Phoenix and its “darker” counterpart). Under Claremont’s pen, this graphic novel further cements the X-Men’s struggle as an allegory for race relations while also delving into concepts of religious hypocrisy and fear mongering.

Artwork is handled beautifully by Brent Anderson, whose relatively realistic style sells many of the book’s harsher moments. The characters all feel like people that can be wounded in more ways than mere battle fatigue. For example, Kitty’s expression in the book’s early scenes, when she gets in a tussle with a group of anti-mutant racists, is contorted into a mask of pure, palpable anguish. In the same light, the moments of peace, particularly toward the end of the story, feel exactly right. The uneasy smile on Scott’s face as he confides in Ororo and accepts that the fight is over, even though the war continues, is a major component in what might be a character high-point.

So 2000 and Late: I have to make a difficult confession: I’ve always found X-Men comics to be fascinating, but nearly impenetrable. There are so many characters and alternative history/sons of holograms of clones that I find myself having little to no clue where to start. And, yes, I say this as someone reading Doomsday Clock.

Nevertheless, this is why I’ve always enjoyed the various media adaptations of the X-Men characters, like the ’90s animated series, which filtered the massive X-universe into bite-sized chunks tailor-made for Saturday morning audiences. I naturally devoured Claremont’s run when I was a kid. However, for the most part, when I bought an X-Men-related comic, it was a Marvel Team-Up or What If? issue featuring the team members, since those usually required much less of a deep dive into the rocky continuity.

Even nowadays, a seasoned reader of several crises and secret wars, I find myself intimidated by the sheer breadth of the X-Men legacy. When I do pick up an X-Men book now, it’s usually some offbeat miniseries, like Max Bemis’ Worst X-Man Ever or Matthew Rosenberg’s Multiple Man — stories that fit snugly into the X-Men universe without feeling like I need Wikipedia open as I read.

It’s odd, then, that I’ve left this one unread for so long. Not only is it written by Chris Claremont, not to mention light on ties to the wider X-Men continuity, but it’s famously a big influence on the earlier entries of the live-action X-Men film series. 

The Long and Short: Originally published in 1982 as Marvel Graphic Novel #5, this book is notable for a few reasons. Namely, its status as the first ever X-Men graphic novel as well as for being one of the main inspirations for the plot of 2002’s X2: X-Men United. The story here follows the X-Men’s attempts to rescue some of their teammates from William Stryker, a mad evangelist who plots to kill every mutant in the world. To save the day, the X-Men turn to the most unlikely ally, their archnemesis, Magneto.

Connecting the Dots: When comparing this graphic novel and the film it inspired, the narrative differences and similarities are interesting. Obviously, the biggest changes, aside from the obvious bits like time period and team roster, have to do with the lead villain of William Stryker. In the films, Stryker has been changed from a religious zealot to more of an unhinged military leader. Both versions of Stryker have a strike force trained to take out mutants, and their plans are extraordinarily similar, but the religious connections make him so much more of a palpable threat.

There’s a difference between the kind of blind hatred shown by Brian Cox’s William Stryker of the film and the fanaticism clouding the mind of the page’s Reverend Stryker. The comic paints Stryker as a man who wholeheartedly believes in his crusade, and that it’s a divine charge handed to him. This makes him so much more dangerous than the sociopath with a vendetta of X2. It also makes his followers even scarier, because they’re just people. When the X-Men are nearly lynched in public, it’s by people who came to Stryker’s rally to hear his message, not the highly-capable paramilitary unit of the film.

It’s also fascinating to note how important to the fabric of the X-Men cinematic universe William Stryker has since become, with versions of the character appearing in X2, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. He’s taken on a level of importance within the film series that he never really did in the comics, mostly because this graphic novel’s canon was in dispute for quite some time (more on that in a moment).

What’s the Deal?!: This is a story held in high esteem by X-fans past and present. God Loves, Man Kills has been praised for its unflinching portrayals of bigotry and perseverance in the face of adversity. Though its release as a standalone graphic novel, rather than an issue of the main series, led to its canon remaining somewhat vague, it was eventually outright recognized as being in-canon when X2 was released.

The debut of X2 convinced Marvel to commission a sequel to the original graphic novel in the pages of X-Treme X-Men (synergy, baby!). This story sadly didn’t quite live up to the cerebral nature of the original, focusing much more on punch-ups with soldiers and Lady Deathstrike, much like the film that prompted it. The character of Stryker would make sporadic appearances in the comics after that, each to varying degrees of success. Still, the original God Loves, Man Kills is frequently mentioned as one of the greatest, most memorable standalone stories in the X-Men canon, and it’s easy to see why.

Lessons Learned: As a fan of Claremont’s X-Men stories, I’m always rather amused with his approach to aggressive situations, particularly when it comes to dialogue. I get a genuine kick out of Wolverine calling someone a “blamed fool” and the like, as well as the exaggerated dialects of characters like Gambit and Rogue or the dedicated nicknames the heroes have cultivated. Call it kitschy, but it never fails to make me smile when Kitty Pryde calls Kurt “Fuzzy Elf.”

However, Claremont allows his characters to be much more frank with one another than he’d ever attempt in a mainstream issue of Uncanny X-Men. Pryde explicitly compares the prejudicial slurs hurled toward mutantkind to the kinds of disgusting remarks that racists toss at African-Americans. It’s an uncomfortable sequence that feels almost too real and more than a little shocking. 

This unpleasantness carries into the level of violence in the story. While it’s not explicitly gory, the event that opens the book is the murder of two mutant children, victims of Stryker’s fanatical mercenaries, the Purifiers. The fact that the children are both black is a horrifying (if less than subtle) reminder that, as much as we want to hope for a better world, the evils of men in real life are still far too similar to those of the comic book realm.

Not all monsters have extraordinary abilities; far too many of them are human beings burning with endless vitriol. It’s a truly horrific scene that is made even more upsetting by the villains’ racial motivations, and yet it never once feels like this book is aiming purely for shock value. As a whole, God Loves, Man Kills strives for a kind of uncomfortable realism amidst all of the flashy costumes and super powers. It’s a real reminder tha X-Men have stood the test of time because their message is endlessly and depressingly relevant.

However, before you think the book is all heavy-handed doom and gloom, there is still quite a bit of fun to be had. For one, this book focuses on one of the all-time great X-Men team line-ups: Nightcrawler, Ariel (one of Kitty’s more short-lived aliases), Colossus, Cyclops, and Storm. The Danger Room training sequences are a kinetic delight while the banter between the teammates during the less intense sequences are a breath of fresh air, reminding the reader that these guys really like each other. It’s a delicate balance to make a book fun and capital-I Important, and there are moments when God Loves, Man Kills makes a tremendous effort to do both.

Odds & Ends: There’s a part of me that would love to visit the alternate history where Neal Adams illustrated this series and Magneto was killed. Not because I think it would have been better, mind you, but because it would be so drastically different in story and tone that it would be a trip to read. Beyond the fact that the death of the X-Men’s greatest foe would have 100% relegated this story persona non canon (or swiftly retconned), I can’t help but feel like Adams’ art style would have made a huge difference. Despite the similarities in Adams’ and Anderson’s styles, the latter’s artwork just feels more grounded in the real world. Don’t get me wrong – Adams draws superheroes like no one else, and I’m a massive fan of his work. Instead, Anderson draws the X-Men like real people, with complex expressions and emotive body language that suit this story perfectly.

Not only that, but the death of Magneto may have come across as more of a gimmick than Jim Shooter may have originally intended. That death is what the story would be remembered for, much less than the important themes and character work. That version may have still been a strong piece, but it would also ultimately be known as “that comic where Magneto died.”

The Miracle of Hindsight: I can’t help but feel that I wouldn’t have appreciated this story quite so much if I came to it at an earlier age. If I had read it in the ’90s, many of the deeper themes may have flown right over my head, and the dialogue may have been too verbose for my tastes at the time. Not to mention, the ’90s were my intro to all things X-Men, so many of my fav books at the time were more action-oriented fare. This more contemplative story probably wouldn’t have played as well to a kid who was used to seeing Cable regularly screaming at Apocalypse both on the page and on Saturday mornings.

I know I’ve mentioned this more than once, but this story feels much more grounded in its politics and battles than some of the more cosmic stories the characters were caught up in during this time period. Realism in comics isn’t always the best route, but it really works in the case of God Loves, Man Kills. The racial subtext of X-Men becomes text, as these very real and tangible characters grapple with an enemy that they can’t simply punch out of existence. It’s an incredible feat to pull off, mixing the big super-powered action with an important social message in a way that doesn’t feel like pandering, but Claremont’s script, like all of the best X-Men tales, makes it work.

Final Thoughts: Though it has a few moments that feel a little too heavy-handed, God Loves, Man Kills still holds up remarkably well, feeling more timeless than even the excellent film it birthed. The whole tome has a meaner edge and little more honesty to it than you may be expecting. Even for folks who aren’t fans of Claremont’s prose (I’m assuming you may exist), this is a must-read. It perfectly distills the struggles of the X-Men and the marginalized people they represent in a gripping story that, sadly, proves more relevant than ever before.

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