05/24/2012 03:20 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The X-Men Join the Evolution

When The Avengers opened earlier this month, it shattered several box-office records, including biggest opening weekend in North America. Those numbers tell us everything we need to know about why marriage equality advocates should be anxiously anticipating the recently announced, impending marriage that will be featured in the upcoming issue of The Astounding X-Men. In Issue 51, slated to be released next month in time for Pride, openly gay X-Man Jean-Paul Beaubier (a.k.a. Northstar) and his boyfriend Kyle Jinadu will say "I do."

Simply put, comic books are important, possibly more important than they should be, but definitely more important than they're given credit for being. Comic books have a unique ability to change the way we think and talk about things, especially identity. They're divorced enough from reality to allow us to suspend our prejudices along with our belief, but still similar enough for the metaphors to be within reach. And this is especially valuable because comic books are, at their core, stories for young people. And they can give us a vocabulary to talk about complex issues with an audience that needs to understand them.

It's hard to talk about racism and the assumption of whiteness, but it's an easier subject to broach when we can begin by discussing the visceral reaction some people had to the idea of black actor Donald Glover portraying Spider-Man. It's hard to talk about sexism and the vilification of strong women, but a good starting point is my own devastation upon seeing the recent X-Men: First Class portray the infamously unapologetic Mystique as a self-loathing mutant until Magneto taught her to love herself. Comic books, and the movies they spawn, are slowly changing the way we can talk about identity and oppression in a time when these issues are crucially important but becoming more difficult to discuss without inviting charges of bias.

And the world of the X-Men has always been particularly well-suited for this discussion. The persecution of mutants in the X-Men comic books and their fight for equality grafts easily onto many real-world equal-rights struggles. Notably, Magneto, the villain who preaches mutant superiority over humans, draws frequent comparisons between the discrimination he faces as a mutant and the persecution he faced as a Jewish boy before being kidnapped and placed in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. The contrast between the two mutant camps -- Professor X's approach of fighting for equality by changing hearts and minds and Magneto's by-any-means-necessary approach to protecting mutants from injustice -- doesn't simply invite the Martin Luther King, Jr./Malcolm X comparison; it requires it.

And then there are the obvious parallels between the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and the mutants. The X-Men comics never shied away from portraying LGBT characters. Mystique was bisexual and had a long-term relationship with her lover Destiny. Moreover, with the ability of some characters to shape-shift into different people, ambiguity surrounding gender identity has always been a part of the X-Men. Further, the relationship of mutants with the non-mutant world is similar to that of the LGBT community. This has allowed the characters to explore issues familiar to LGBT people like "coming out" as mutants to non-mutant parents, the privilege held by mutants who look human and can thereby pass as opposed to those whose mutations cannot be hidden (or those who feel they shouldn't have to hide), and what would happen if a so-called "cure" for mutation was discovered. It seems fitting that the X-Men, whose mutations have been described as the next step in human evolution, have evolved on this issue along with President Obama. It is fitting that they would use this chance to be heroes again.

While the ambiguously homoerotic relationship between a superhero and his sidekick has become something of a cliché, the pairing of comic-book heroes and LGBT themes makes sense. These stories feature people who, in order to protect themselves and those around them, adopt secret identities and hide who they really are. They don masks and save humanity, defend the weak, and fight for justice, despite the fact that they're being charged to protect a world that may well turn on them if people discovered who they were.

And they survive.

That's the part of the story that can save lives. Simply by surviving whatever evil is facing them, comic-book heroes show the young people who are dealing with their own secret identities and battling their own demons that it is possible to survive. And that can instill enough hope so that no matter how bad things get, youth everywhere reading these stories can retain the capacity to look to the sky, believe in heroes, and fight for a better world.