clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

God Loves, Man Kills: the creators of the legendary X-Men story reflect on its 35-year legacy

Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson talk to Vox about their story, its relevance, the current state of the X-Men, and Mike Pence’s uncanny resemblance to their villain.

God Loves, Man Kills
Anderson/Marvel
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

God Loves, Man Kills is the most important X-Men story ever told.

Written by Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson in 1982, it zooms in on a fight between Marvel’s mutants and an enigmatic religious figure named Reverend William Stryker. Stryker uses religion to spread prejudice and hate against mutants like the X-Men, claiming they’re abominations of what God created. The X-Men’s wide range of powers — from teleportation to adamantium claws — are essentially rendered useless, because the battle they’re fighting is against prejudice and discrimination.

God Loves, Man Kills was the first X-Men graphic novel — and it’s also an iconic piece of X-Men history. (New Mutants was technically the first graphic novel to focus on mutants, but God Loves was the first to feature the core X-Men characters.) The basis of the book is quintessential X-Men: a story about humanity and being a minority.

The graphic novel turns 35 years old this year, and like a certain adamantium-laced mutant, it’s withstood the weathering of time; not only has it been reprinted several times, but it served as the source material for Bryan Singer’s 2003 film X2: X-Men United. Some of that endurance is due to Claremont and Anderson’s excellent work. But its current relevance is also due to an eerie parallel between God Loves, Man Kills and our contentious political climate — which has seen a resurgence of xenophobia and white supremacy in the months before and after President Donald Trump’s election.

Claremont, perhaps the greatest writer to ever touch the X-Men, will tell you that God Loves, Man Kills is one the works he’s proudest of. For Anderson, the book’s potential legacy took a bit longer to register. But as it turns 35 amid consistent talk of travel bans and extreme vetting of refugees, under an administration that has more or less given its blessing for fearmongering against transgender people, Claremont and Anderson’s story about persecuting mutants feels especially apropos.

Earlier this year, I caught up with Claremont and Anderson separately to revisit their iconic story and discuss the discrimination and injustices it addresses. But I also got to talk to them about the current state of the X-Men; how the God Loves, Man Kills narrative fits into our current political reality; the evolution of Marvel’s creative process through the years; and their thoughts on the frequent observation that Vice President Mike Pence and Reverend Stryker bear an uncanny resemblance to each other.

The following interviews have been combined and edited for length and clarity.

Alex Abad-Santos

This may sound silly, but are you aware that many people on the internet believe Vice President Mike Pence looks like your rendition of Reverend Stryker?

Brent Anderson

Oh, yes. I am also aware the internet thinks Pence looks like “Race Bannon,” so, at most, if the comparison inspires a new generation to read God Loves, Man Kills, all the better. Just to keep the record straight, Reverend Stryker was visually based on Alexander Haig, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state.

Chris Claremont

What you need to do is find someone in the Washington press corps [to] ask Mike Pence and see what he thinks.

Alex Abad-Santos

I found myself rereading the beginning of God Loves in the wake of the Trump administration’s travel ban earlier this year and was shocked at how [closely] God Loves mirrors real life — particularly in how the ban affects children, and how the first scene in God Loves involves children being hunted.

God Loves, Man Kills.
Anderson/Marvel

Chris Claremont

I guess the phrase that the “X-Men were way ahead of their time” turns out more and more to be disconcertingly apropos.

There's a scene I did back in [1985] — John Romita Jr. was drawing [a different comic then] — where Rachel Grey, Jean's daughter, she's over in the Statue of Liberty, looking back at Lower Manhattan and remembering her history at the dawn of the 21st century, when she was a hound-hunting mutant. What she remembers is in 2001, the World Trade Center in ruins. It was very disconcerting 15 years later to actually see it happen.

In a way [God Loves], from my creative perception, I guess it’s a little bit like Rachel. It is part of a canon, but because of her origin, she is a step totally removed from the canon. She is a sole survivor of her direction of life. The idea with God Loves was, again, [intended so that] if you never read an issue of a regular series but wanted to know what the series, the concepts, the characters, the reality was all about — and to do so in a way that had, and sadly still has, relevance to the "real world" — this was the story.

Alex Abad-Santos

Do you ever look at politics in 2017 and think about what you wrote back then, and are surprised that the story still resonates 35 years later?

Chris Claremont

I guess, in a way, it's saddening because there was so much hope, exemplified by the election in 2008. That we had gone to … a more positive space in American national politics. It seems that the ebb of the tide is as fierce as the flow was. I guess it's one step forward, hopefully not a step back.

Alex Abad-Santos

Is it possible to separate personal politics from comic books?

Brent Anderson

Sure, it's possible to exclude politics from comic books, but not from art. Comics produced through avoidance of the real world are hardly satisfactory on any meaningful artistic level. Reading them might fill 15 to 30 minutes of time as a momentary distraction, but without at least a bit of sociopolitical inference, you might as well buy a superhero pinup book to flip through. Art may not be the answer to the real world's problems, but it certainly makes dealing with them on a personal level a bit easier.

Alex Abad-Santos

In terms of the X-Men, if you look at the arc of their popularity over the past three decades, they boomed in the ’80s and ’90s, and the theme of a team bonding over their outsider status boomed along with them. In the late ’90s you start to see the thematic pendulum in comics swing toward vigilante billionaire characters like Batman, and in the movies, characters like Iron Man. The characters that’ve been especially popular recently are more aspirational than outsider.

Do you think we'll ever see the pendulum swing back the other way?

Chris Claremont

I think it's not as simple or direct as your question or your supposition implies. The X-Men, during my run, was the product of a unique set of circumstances that certainly, with respect to the X-Men, cannot be replicated.

[The comic] was completely reborn with David Cockrum’s art and Len Wein's concepts in [1975’s Giant Size X-Men No. 1]. With every character and pretty much every story after that [including God Loves, Man Kills], the goal was to find a new way of looking at the characters as a concept. To see what we could do that had not been done before.

The other extraordinary advantage that I had was freedom. The editorial ethos of Marvel in 1975 is incomparable — incomparable — to the one that exists today.

[Then-Marvel president Stan Lee’s] attitude was, quite bluntly, “If you have the book, your responsibility as a writer is to tell good stories, to get it in on time, and not be a pain in my ass.” The joke was, any two of those three and you could keep the book. I mean, the corollary to "get it in on time" was hopefully “make it sell.”

There was a tremendously greater sense of freedom in terms of how you could approach characters, concepts, story. By 1991, it was no longer that the writer had the book and could do what the writer wanted. The writer had the book and was responsible to the editor, who was responsible to the group editor, who was responsible to the editor-in-chief. It could not help, under those circumstances, to be a more structured, complicated organization.

A scene from God Loves, Man Kills.
Anderson/Marvel

Alex Abad-Santos

Right. Writers and artists today have to fit into a continuing, interconnected narrative. I’ve talked to creators who’ve expressed frustration with having to write a story but also keep continuity with Marvel’s bigger stories and character developments.

Chris Claremont

The creative management relationship at Marvel [today] is far more organizationally structured, and I would assume far more, not intrusive, but certainly hands-on. The goals of the book editor or the group editor may not be entirely simpatico with the creative instincts of an individual writer.

As, I think, [artist] Bill Sienkiewicz pointed out, even back in the days when we were doing New Mutants, management came down and expressed a desire that perhaps Bill could start drawing a little less radically and make it a little more like Moon Knight.

Bill, quite rightly, pointed out, "Yeah, but the way we're doing it is selling. So you want me to bastardize my talent and my skill to make it conform to a house style. Is that what you want?" They kind of went, "Oh, never mind."

So you see, there is always that “push me, pull you” kind of effect. Oversight tends to be conservative because they have to deal with their management structure. Sorry, this is a roundabout way of getting back to answering the question.

Alex Abad-Santos

This is fascinating. Go on.

Chris Claremont

The challenge with any creator taking over a concept like X-Men or Fantastic Four — or Thor or Avengers or Batman, for that matter — is that you now have to deal with a significant amount of history relating to the character. That whatever instincts you might have, creatively or otherwise, are tempered by the reality of what has gone before, the amount of available freedom, creative freedom just doesn't exist.

The one core difference that made the X-universe unique, compared to the Avengers and the Fantastic Four and all of the rest of the Marvel universe, is that they were totally clandestine. People were scared because they weren't a public team. They were a shadow team. There were only a few of them, comparatively speaking. If you take that away, then they are no different than any other team. They have lost this one seminal element of uniqueness. You can't ever get it back.

The decision was made that this was a viable creative step to take. Kind of like Spider-Man getting married. Once you cross that threshold, you can't take it back. Once Cyclops, once Scott marries Madelyne Pryor [in an X-Men plot where Cyclops marries Jean Grey’s clone], once they have a child, it doesn't matter what series you resurrect or put them into or what reality you want to define — Scott dumped his wife and his son in favor of his old girlfriend.

That may be a very real reflection of non-comics reality, but it's not what you want in a hero. It's not what you want in somebody who was supposed to, at the time, be the essence of the heart and soul of the X-concept.

Alex Abad-Santos

Well, there are, like, two Scotts going on right now.

Chris Claremont

Really? That's interesting.

Alex Abad-Santos

Marvel brought back Scott Summers from when he was an original X-Man into the current timeline. Current Scott killed Xavier in Avengers vs. X-Men, splitting up the X-Men. Then there was a story arc with the X-Men and the Inhumans, and Marvel killed that Scott.

Chris Claremont

Which Scott?

Alex Abad-Santos

The real Scott. Your Scott.

Chris Claremont

They did? Is there a Cyclops running around?

Alex Abad-Santos

Yeah, he's the young one. The other one is dead because the Inhumans fought the X-Men over Terrigen Mist killing mutants — it’s a long story.

Chris Claremont

So if you have Inhumans versus X-Men, so who are you supposed to root for?

Alex Abad-Santos

I personally grew up on the X-Men. So the X-Men, obviously. And Storm — she’s my favorite character.

Chris Claremont

It shows you have excellent taste. [Claremont wrote what’s considered to be the best run on the character of Storm.]

Stryker in God Loves, Man Kills.
Anderson/Marvel

Alex Abad-Santos

But back to the X-Men: Brent, do you feel the same as Chris — they lost what made them special when they decided to “come out”? That they lost their core values, or that integral component of their existence?

Brent Anderson

If what Chris meant in the nascent Fantastic Four and Avengers was the developing archetypal backstory, yes, I agree. Once the characters transcend being a mere archetype and actually become complex, fully formed, believable, and popular personalities, the commercial tendency is to either arrest their development or totally change them under the same trademark name to regenerate interest in them. Either move tends to abrogate the original creative impetus.

Chris Claremont

The X-Men were always outsiders. No matter how welcoming society might feel it is, there will always be that creepy look they get.

To me, I liked the idea of them being outcasts. That was the whole point of building Magneto, evolving Magneto's state until he could make a choice to live his life a better way, a newer way. That was the exemplification of God Loves — Magneto starts out by looking at the death of two innocents and vowing vengeance. At the end, he approaches the conflict at Madison Square Garden standing with the X-Men and erring on the side of mercy, I guess, rather than vengeance. Maybe justice rather than vengeance. The actual act of justice comes not from a mutant, not from a super being, but from a New York cop, defending a kid who's about to be killed by William Stryker.

Alex Abad-Santos

In God Loves, that’s very clear. There’s also a message of empathy — that it can be hard to empathize with someone else’s pain. There’s a particularly painful scene with Stevie Hunter in which Kitty uses the word “nigger” to make clear to Stevie how hurt she is by mutant discrimination. How nervous were you to get that right? How important was it for you to make that point?

Brent Anderson

I wasn't nervous at all. Kitty's anger was the most natural and honest reaction to the situation, and was totally appropriate and meaningful to the story. Since I believed wholeheartedly in the meaning of the scene, I had no second thoughts about whether I was getting it right or not.

I felt the same way about the "crucifixion of Xavier" scene. I was so gratified and validated by Pat Robertson on his 700 Club televangelist TV show holding up that scene on camera and condemning it for being "blasphemous." Robertson was completely taken by the imagery, and didn't at all understand the context of the scene.

Kitty confronts Stevie Hunter in God Loves, Man Kills.
Anderson/Marvel

Chris Claremont

If you can't create characters who can make a resonant point, a relevant point, then what the fuck? What is the point of doing the series? Anyone can write superhero adventures about mass quantities of people punching the living daylights out of each other.

If a story is to have resonance, if a story is to be worth the time and effort it takes to create it and then the time and effort it takes to read it or earn the money to buy the book and then read it, then it ought to have a payback.

Alex Abad-Santos

I'm 34, just about as old as the book. And I really find it fascinating that you all were referencing your own realities and the discrimination you saw — things that I wasn't old enough to comprehend at the time. Today, I find myself coming back to the book and seeing it reflect modern-day conflicts. How does it feel to have created a touchstone/lesson/piece of art that's transcended a generation or two or three?

Brent Anderson

The reality of its impact has only come to me gradually, as it was reprinted roughly every three years for a couple of decades. What convinces me that Chris and I had created something truly notable has been people commenting on it favorably and meaningfully over the years, expressing the positive impact the story has had on their lives. As one of its creators, I am gratified it has attained this level of acceptance, criticism, and stature.

Chris Claremont

The point that Louise [Simonson, the editor of God Loves] and I agreed on right off the bat was that if this was going to be the first X-Men graphic novel and one of Marvel’s first company graphic novels, we did not want it to be a trivial event. I wanted to do something to address a story that we did not, and perhaps because of the comics code or our own sense of audience, would not try in a regular run of a book.

More importantly, I wanted to do a story that was a complete standalone, so that if one could go to a reader and say, or [go] to the audience and say, "If you have never read an issue of the X-men before, if you never want to read one again, but you want to read a story, a project that encompasses everything that, for me, maybe X-Men, as characters and concepts, what it is, their struggle, their personal struggle, their thematic struggle, the conflict of heroes, villains — this would be it.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.