Super: The Inhumans and the Sinister Gentrification of Otherness
The Inhumans used to be one of the more fascinating minor oddities of the Marvel Universe; ultimately only about as important as the Atlanteans or Monster Island, but just as pleasingly weird. With Medusa's magnificent hair, Gorgon's thunderhooves, and Black Bolt's mute power in a world of chatty heroes, they were deservedly called 'uncanny' back when the X-Men were still a preppy study group.
But the Inhumans have become the "fetch" of the Marvel Universe; the more Marvel tries to make them happen, the more certain it seems that they never will. What makes the Inhumans' rise especially hard to accept is that it seems directly tied to the fall of the mutants. Today's X-Men are comics' most significant icons of otherness, and treating them as interchangeable with another set of outsiders is dehumanizing on a whole new level.
Marvel has never officially confirmed that it wants to replace mutants with Inhumans, but it's certainly no coincidence that the number of Inhumans titles is at an all-time high when the number of X-Men titles is the lowest it's been since the '90s. On the one hand, there's a financial motive to demoting the mutants, since movie studio Fox owns a significant share of the X-Men licensing rights. On the other hand, mutants have a value to a superhero publisher. They're an easy origin story for major and minor characters, they're an engine for epic events, and they're a totemic underdog with a built-in appeal to angsty adolescents of all ages. Building up the Inhumans theoretically allows Marvel to retain the value of mutants without paying Fox a tithe. The Inhumans are mutant sucralose.
We now know that the Inhumans are replacing mutants in more than a theoretical sense. A preview for Jeff Lemire and Humberto Ramos's Extraordinary X-Men #1 shows that the same Terrigen Mist that awakens the powers of select Inhumans is also killing and sterilizing mutants.
None of this is new. We've had a mutant plague before; we've had mutant sterility before; we've had mutants pushed to the brink of extinction before. Extinction has been the dominant X-Men story of the past ten years, from House of M to Avengers vs X-Men and beyond. But what's frustrating as an X-Men fan is that these stories aren't about villains trying to wipe out mutants; they're about Marvel editorial trying to wipe out mutants. And when you see mutants as a metaphor for otherness and queerness, that's troubling, and emotionally exhausting.
I've written before about why the X-Men resonate with me as a queer metaphor in a fictional world that didn't make room for LGBTQ characters. Mutants are outcast, transformative, and can be born from any family. That makes them powerfully resonant to LGBTQ readers. Queer characters are still marginal in the Marvel Universe, but even if they weren't, the value of the X-Men as icons of queerness is enormous.
When a publisher's editorial approach to its big queer metaphor is to keep finding new ways to sterilize them and wipe them out, that looks bad --- yes, even if motivated by that noble desire to make as much money as possible.
The Inhumans are a particularly poor substitute for the queer metaphor, because they represent something very different and dark. While the X-Men are all about celebrating people who are born different, the Inhumans are a society founded in eugenics; the idea that society can be improved by eliminating the socially deviant and the undesirable; the idea that we can engineer a superior race. Creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, two Jewish men just twenty years removed from the Holocaust, were not blind to the ideas they were exploring in this sci-fi invention.
The Inhumans had a caste system, and their own slave race, the Alpha Primitives. They have a royal family, with all that this implies about class and power and their willingness to wage wars. Unlike the 'found' families of the X-Men, the Inhumans are bound by blood. Where the X-Men are outsiders desperately clinging together, the Inhumans feel like cliquish insiders, like a Yale secret society. The Inhumans' history and ideology could not be more starkly at odds with the metaphor of queer identity.
Yet they're the ones being used to sweep mutants aside, and that's bad for the X-Men and for the Inhumans. Far from being the cool new quirky heroes that all the kids love, the Inhumans are the ones slaughtering queer underdogs by editorial mandate. They're an invasive species. They're colonizers.
Or they're the forces of gentrification --- in the form of actual gentry. The Inhumans are new neighbors, flush with capital, edging out the unwanted residents that built this community, and eroding the vibrant culture that made that neighborhood so special.
Oppression is part of the mutant story, of course. The X-Men should face existential crises. But their biggest existential threat shouldn't come from Marvel executives who are apparently insensitive to what these characters represent.
This is the second mutant genocide in just ten years, but this time Marvel's vibrant queer metaphor is being gassed to death to make room for the regal product of a social engineering program. So we're supposed to accept this glossy new product as the mandated face of Marvel's outcast heroes?
It's not going to happen.