God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and John Byrne
This is the comic book that inspired some of the important elements featured in the groundwork for the arguably best X-Men film from the first trilogy franchise, X2. This is why reading God Loves, Man Kills will certainly be recognizable to a reader who has seen the said film adaptation first. With a total of sixty-four pages and illustrated by artist John Byrne, Chris Claremont took the task of tackling hard issues such as racial discrimination and religious persecution in this story.
As a lapsed Catholic from a developing Asian country, I'm inherently curious of how fictional mediums handle social issues with meaningful messages so this particular comic book got me intrigued. Its premise had a lot of promise and potential but I would also assert that the delivery can certainly get awkward in some of the pages. The connections it aimed to make is one concerning that of prejudice against mutants which could be liken to that of racial intolerance. When this was written, the civil rights movement being pushed through at that time was the plight of the African-American community (much like the circumstances in X2 reflect the gay rights movement). There was even that moment seven pages in to this comic book where Kitty Pryde, after standing up to a man who was a "mutantphobe", was reprimanded by an older female black friend. This is when Kitty lashes out at her, claiming that she would be more furious if that man used the N-word against her. The book actually does spell out the actual word, much to my shock. I was just as shocked with the opening two pages where we see two black children being gunned down because they were born mutants.
Claremont quickly establishes early on that this story is not going to be an easy walk-in-the-park. It was written after all to question and challenge the brutality, hatred and ignorance that people of color have suffered, and how much they have strived to fight and rise against it. To do so, he likens that to the prejudiced situations mutantkind itself faces daily from humans, and the X-Men's role in standing up against this blatant discrimination. To represent that opposing side, Claremont also creates the character of Revered Stryker who is hell-bent on purging mutants, believing that they are impure and unnatural, and therefore deserve to die. As an affront to God Himself, mutants are the scourge of the earth that Stryker and his followers have to cleanse. The terrifying implications of a religious order (particularly that of a Christian sect) using brute force and moral panic to advocate and sustain their crusades are uncomfortably familiar, especially if you have my background. However, as much as I enjoyed the honesty and appreciated the straightforward and cringe-worthy delivery of such a social issue, a part of me also doubts that God Loves, Man Kills has aged well. If you pick this up now, you might find it offensive or pandering, depending on your upbringing and personal politics.
Personally, I can accept and even commend the effort to discuss a social issue within the confines of fiction and in a comic medium at that. It certainly can give weight to said medium as a source of insight and meaningful discussion (much like Alan Moore's Watchmen which satirizes the symbol and meaning of superheroes in a world where they were real and have participated and influenced certain milestones in human history). Nevertheless, using the civil rights movement of the African-American community and equating it with the struggles of a fictional group such as the X-Men and mutants in general can seem like a manipulation of sentiment and emotion., if not a disservice to the former group's own genuine hardships during the time this was written. Is it too far-fetched, or is it going too far to liken and compare both parties? That is not for me to say conclusively. This is a rather polarizing story for anyone who has read it. One can argue, however, that X-Men is supposed to be a representation of any diverse and oppressed group of people who wish to have equal rights with the majority. That's how I choose to view them and since I don't live in America and can understand the nuances or feel the aftermath of the Africa-American civil rights movement, I can't make criticisms concerning whether or not God Loves, Man Kills gave it a dignified portrayal or not.
What I can give a more informed opinion of is the treatment of religious groups for this comic book specifically with Reverend Stryker. As a character, he was completely despicable and even irredeemable to the very end. I would argue that this has been a constant misrepresentation of the Christian community in general. Though there are fanatics both in the past and the present who force-feed their own set of beliefs especially those that condemn and persecute minorities of race, sexual orientation, etc., it's bordering on lazy writing to utilize such a one-dimensional character that also reinforces an unfortunate stereotype. A good story requires a villain to serve as the evil force which the heroes must fight and defeat; but an excellent one requires a villain whose intentions and motives may be disagreeable but who should be just as well-developed (and perhaps even slightly sympathetic) as the protagonists in order to make a compelling conflict work which then make an emotionally satisfying resolution. In this sense, God Loves, Man Kills fails to deliver because the issue was tackled one-sided and interpreted in black-and-white terms. Reverend Stryker was simply unrelatable.
Speaking of believable villains, Magneto does take part in this story as an ally and whose help is something that the X-Men reluctantly accepts. They have a common enemy in Stryker and with Magneto in the pages, Stryker's flaws become more pronounced that it's very easy to choose to the devil you know. In this case, it's Magneto, and he is almost always single-handedly incapacitating the rest of Stryker's "purifiers"; these armed men and women who are avid mutantphobes and are unquestioningly torturing and killing mutants. I was really happy with Magneto's participation in this story as well as the pay-off in the end when he once again argues that humankind cannot be trusted and that the X-Men should stand with him and not waste time protecting a species that denounces them. It was Cyclops who maintains that peaceful co-existence is still possible between their kind and the humans, emphasizing that (and I will use a Once and Future King reference here because I just finished reading said novel last week, and the film did use it as both Xavier and Magneto's favorite book) 'Right should be established through Right and not Might.' It is notable though that Professor X almost wanted to go with Magneto
Y'all should know by now that I SHIP IT and that I always look forward to referencing just how much Prof X and Mags LOVE EACH OTHER BEYOND ANY OF US CAN COMPREHEND, so let me grab this opportunity and talk about Cherik for a moment. It's interesting that Charles almost concedes and takes Magneto's hand in those panels. I'd like to believe that he must have unconsciously recognized that this was the moment he's been waiting for; to be reunited with his former best friend and fight by his side JUST AS WHAT WAS WRITTEN IN THE STARS. However, he is also quickly reminded that he has an obligation as the founder, mentor and surrogate father of the X-Men so choosing to be with Magneto means abandoning them. That's the kicker. That's probably the only thing preventing Charles at this point to take the hand of his beloved "bookend-soulmate" (HEY IT'S BEEN QUOTED BY HIM) and FLY OFF
Overall, God Loves, Man Kills provides a channel for discussion concerning the real-life implications of prejudice and ignorance against minorities of different cultural backgrounds. It can be viewed as a cautionary tale. It can be considered as a crucial story that solidified the X-Men as THE group of marginalized superheroes that are also champions for the sectors in our society who are denied the same rights as everybody else just because they are different from the rest. This was the driving narrative for the X2 film after all, and this was the comic book which helped build that version which I maintain is the better one of the two. So go ahead and pick up God Loves, Man Kills. It's considered a classic important work to some and if you are an X-Men fan in a way where you think their class struggle resonates with you then this might appeal to you. The violence and cruelty is very hefty though so I feel like I should warn you about that.