It seems like the most straightforward and subversive metaphor in superhero comics. A quirk of genetics leads a subsection of humanity to develop superpowers. Those without powers, accustomed to viewing the world as their birthright, hate and fear these mutants – and, more urgently, dehumanize, persecute, and oppress them. The story of this conflict is presented from the perspective of the marginalized. Welcome to the X-Men.
Yet nothing about mutantkind is straightforward. Across 55 years of serialized storytelling, the adventures of the X-Men have twisted time, space and reality into intimidating and often impenetrable mazes.
For example: the X-Men’s general, Scott “Cyclops” Summers, has a son who’s decades older than he is. As a baby, Nathan Summers contracted an illness that required raising him in a distant, dystopian future amongst a cult led by Scott’s daughter from a different alternative future. Nathan returned to the present day as a senior citizen, leading a violent X-faction before raising an adoptive daughter on the run across several alternative futures. (You can see Josh Brolin playing Nathan Summers, better known as Cable, in Deadpool 2.) Currently, the Cable-Cyclops age disparity is wider than ever, since the teenage Cyclops from the earliest X-Men comics has been time-displaced to the present day, while his adult counterpart is dead.
Those kinds of continuity tangles are so deeply woven within the franchise that even movie adaptations of the classic X-stories end up caught. The fourth X-film, 2011’s X-Men: First Class, attempted a soft reboot by presenting a prequel story. Then the 2014 movie Days of Future Past, like the early-’80s X-Men story it adapted, used time travel as a narrative engine and erased 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand from fictional existence. Its sequel, 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, introduced younger versions of the X-cast from the earliest X-Men movies, who will feature next year in a version of a story first told in The Last Stand. The truest sense in which the X-films resemble the X-comics is that efforts to make them accessible have rendered them even more confusing – at the risk of overshadowing the civil-rights and liberation metaphors that fueled the X-Men’s rise to elite pop-culture phenomena.
Out of this chaos comes a podcast devoted to making sense of the X-Men – their retcons, their literary themes, their radical political implications – in clinical detail.
Jay & Miles X-Plain The X-Men isn’t just a romp for obsessive nerds. With its 200th episode hitting podcast platforms on Sunday, it’s become a community for those who identify with the mutant metaphor – and who enjoy dissecting what it is and isn’t – and stand against the backlash politics that stretch from comics fandom to the White House. The mutant resistance starts with Jay Edidin and Miles Stokes, whose four-year-long journey through yellowing back issues has transformed their own highly complex personal relationship in manners reminiscent of what they call comics’ greatest superhero soap opera.
“The relative flexibility of mutants as a metaphor provides a de facto stand-in and point of identification for a very, very wide range of readers and experiences connected to marginalized groups and identities that otherwise don’t really see representation in comics and popular media,” says Edidin, a freelance writer and editor in New York.
“It goes a very long way to creating models and lexicons for acknowledging and embracing differences and for pushing back on marginalization and oppression based on those differences. The number of folks I’ve talked to who’ve talked about X-Men as sort of their point of reference, as kids or teenagers, for it being OK to be different – and also for the fact that people who are different, and often different in completely different ways from each other as well, could ally together and be found-families. That’s a hell of a lesson, and one that I think a lot of people have walked away with. And it’s gotten a lot of people, especially younger readers, through a lot of isolation.”
At the same time, Edidin is compelled to point out the limits of the mutant metaphor – a compulsion that speaks to the precision his podcast aspires to present.
Most often, X-Men forefather Charles Xavier gets compared to Martin Luther King, while his villainous counterpart Magneto is slotted into the Malcolm X role, a superficial distortion that robs King of his radicalism and Malcolm of his righteousness. And viewing mutants, with their abilities to invade people’s minds or transform into organic-steel powerhouses, as a stand-in for specific minority groups can lead to inadvertently ugly places.
“Saying the X-Men are a metaphor for the black experience in America in an America where black people are extremely disproportionately targeted for police violence because of projected and inaccurate perceptions of threat is a problem,” he observes. “When you try to use it as a metaphor directly for that, it falls apart, and it falls apart in potentially damaging ways.”
Stokes, a Portland-based systems administrator for Dark Horse Comics, considers the X-Men important both as a point of identification for disparaged communities and as a parable for the overclass.
“For someone who reads X-Men who has experienced that oppression, it can be comforting: ‘I’m different and that’s not a bad thing, a family is waiting for me, chosen or otherwise.’ Or on the other side, it can help someone doing that oppressing, or who’s complicit in it, think ‘I can see this, I can change how I’m treating people, this isn’t how I want to be – look at how the X-Men handle it, I want to be one of the good guys.’ And it’s not either-or,” he says.
Stokes has read X-comics since he was a kid, thanks to his father’s love for the franchise. Their political overtones “sort of osmose and fuse into you,” he reflected, with “diversity baked right in.” Central characters like Storm, a black woman once worshipped as a goddess, or Nightcrawler, whose mutations prevent him from passing for baseline-human, helped teach young Stokes a critical skill: empathy. He credits Chris Claremont, a defining X-Men writer who guided the mutants for 17 years, with making him a feminist and laying the foundations for his progressive politics.
Their own politics are unapologetic, particularly concerning dignified representation of marginalized people. But politics emerges on the podcast organically, often through a discussion of a piece of X-history with political salience, like the Mutant Registration Act, the trial of Magneto or the apartheid state of Genosha. Most often, the podcast gleefully delves through X-effluvia that has minimal political salience, such as a favorite oft-forgotten background character whose supreme competence earned him the podcast moniker Super Doctor Astronaut Peter Corbeau. Contemporary American politics is, for the podcast, the weather: ever-present, but not a foreground character unless it’s inescapable. Rarely do Edidin and Stokes design an episode in order to address the current political climate.
An important exception was Episode 164, recorded in September. “This Is The Mutant Revolution” drew explicit parallels between the besiegement of mutantkind and the persecution marginalized communities face in the era of Donald Trump. “Our president is functionally Mojo,” Edidin observed, referencing a corpulent, media-saturated X-villain who rules an alternate dimension through an admixture of violent mass-market entertainment and manipulation of reality through distorted representation. Ann Nocenti, a legendary X-Men writer and editor, co-created the ratings-obsessed Mojo – along with his henchwoman Spiral and rebel Longshot – after being influenced by Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky.
Edidin and Stokes “did a hilarious podcast where they took those characters and just made fun of how complex and ridiculous they were, and it was just so spot-on,” says Nocenti, who calls Mojo “tragically prescient.”
Edidin, who grew up in activist and academic circles in Florida and came to the X-Men in his late teens, is the driving intellectual force on each episode. A typical Edidin exegesis contextualizes, say, the forgotten late-’80s miniseries Havok & Wolverine: Meltdown within nuclear terror fears and Cold War conflict. At the start of the X-Factor spinoff series, Cyclops isn’t just having relationship woes when his old love Jean Grey returns from the dead, prompting him to leave his wife-who-turns-out-to-have-been-Jean’s-clone – fun fact: that’s Cable’s mother – he’s “living an anxiety dream,” Edidin once memorably analyzed.
Stokes, at risk of oversimplification, is the enthusiast on the podcast, prone to intense bursts of rapture when describing a favorite on-panel moment. While Edidin interrogates the comics, Stokes prefers to emphasize the aspects of them he enjoys. (He even found things to like about X-Men: Apocalypse.) Rarely does his passion come across more clearly than when Stokes gushes over ‘80s teen book The New Mutants, which featured the underclassmen at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. The book’s giant heart and focus on the team’s deep friendships resonated with a young and occasionally lonely Stokes.
“The excitement of reading superhero comics, but also that academic perspective, fits X-Men pretty well,” Stokes says of his podcast dynamic with Edidin. “Jay jokes that I’m the face and he’s the heel.”
With a history as long and convoluted as the X-Men’s, producing an hour-long episode each week covering a handful of comic books is a painstaking process. The work starts with exhuming relevant old issues, digitally or physically, and supplementing them with the Marvel wikia or Uncannyxmen.net. Sometimes resolving uncertainties in the X-mythos requires delving into old interviews by X-Men creators. Other times it requires enlisting outside expertise. The aforementioned Havok and Wolverine: Meltdown episode featured guest Susan Beaver explaining how nuclear reactors work. A minor plot point involving a transfusion of mongoose blood once compelled the pair to call up a virologist and learn what effect it would have on a person. Edidin estimates spending between eight and 25 hours researching each episode.
It’s an approach that’s made the podcast a favorite not only of X-Men die-hards but comics creators themselves. Tons of past and present X-Men writers, artists and editors have gone on the podcast, including Claremont, Nocenti, X-Men Legacy’s Si Spurrier, Rogue and Gambit’s Kelly Thompson, Iceman’s Sina Grace, Cyclops’ Russell Dauterman, Uncanny X-Men’s Kris Anka, X-Men: Grand Design’s Ed Piskor, and more. Sunday’s 200th episode features Louise Simonson, whose contributions as Uncanny X-Men editor and New Mutants and X-Factor writer are second only to Claremont’s in the X-pantheon.
Simonson’s latest successor as editor of the X-Men family of comics at Marvel is Jordan D. White. “One of the first things I did when I got the [editorship] was jump onto the podcast,” says White, who tuned into their recent episode discussing 1991’s X-Men #1 by Claremont and Jim Lee. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a really good place to jump in and get back to the X-Men world,’ and just kind of re-immerse myself in the X-Men after not having really worked on an X-Men book in a long time. I thought, this is a great way to do it, and I was absolutely right – they are so in-depth and insightful and fun.”
Al Ewing, the writer of Marvel’s forthcoming Immortal Hulk, took to the podcast so strongly that he wrote Super Doctor Astronaut Peter Corbeau into a panel of Captain America And The Mighty Avengers three years ago. “I remembered the character from the Claremont back issues, but it took Jay and Miles to really bring home to me what a fantastic character he was,” Ewing says.
“I think most people who work in comics are also comics history students to one degree or another,” explains Ewing, who’s appeared on the show. “I know I'm fascinated by the twists and turns of how certain comics came to be, and the evolution of these gigantic eighty-year shared narratives. So I'm a fiend for podcasts and blogs that go through old comics and analyze the trajectory they took over the course of decades, and X-Plain The X-Men is the pinnacle of the genre.”
On the podcast, Edidin and Stokes’ interpersonal dynamic has been stable and consistent. But off-air, their relationship has fundamentally transformed in the four years they’ve been recording.
Edidin and Stokes have been friends and then a romantic couple for most of their lives. They were married at the outset of the podcast, and their marriage occasionally led to some unexpected meta-textual X-moments. It hung in the air as they discussed Cyclops and Jean Grey’s tragic love story at the end of the famous Dark Phoenix Saga. Later, the spouses touched on X-Factor #18, the X-version of Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, in which Cyclops and a resurrected Jean love each other but cannot stop hurting one another – a story that happened to be written and drawn by Louise and Walter Simonson, who are themselves a married couple – and conspicuously breezed past its dense emotional content.
Edidin publicly identified as a woman when the podcast debuted. (The podcast’s initial name was Rachel & Miles X-Plain The X-Men.) But as the podcast took off, Edidin came out to listeners as transgender. In a remarkable months-long stretch of episodes, the pair gradually and seamlessly accustomed their audience to thinking of their co-host as Jay. Ultimately, however, they decided to divorce.
Each of them, to various degrees, concedes an inevitable tension in their post-marriage relationship. Stokes says it was “certainly touch-and-go for a while”; Edidin briefly references being on “amicable-enough terms.” But neither was prepared to give up on each other or the podcast and community they built. That decision mirrored longstanding themes in the X-stories: chosen families whose resilience lies in accepting at-times tumultuous personal upheaval, often through a shared sense of mission.
That chosen family now extends to a broad swath of comics fandom. A typical episode of the highly esoteric podcast reaches over 18,000 people, according to feed data, and their collective body of work has reached over seven million downloads. Fans now swarm to their tables at comics conventions and pack the con halls for their live episodes. Edidin’s mother even recently cosplayed as Cable. “When we started, we were aiming for fifty listeners that weren’t our moms,” Stokes says. “I’m still in awe of the fact that thousands of people care about our opinions and ramblings and jokes about Nicolas Cage’s penis bone.” (Because Cage played Ghost Rider, a motorcycle-riding skeleton on fire, and because inquiring minds want to know.)
Even more remarkably, in an era of vocal, reactionary comics fandom, Edidin and Stokes have cultivated a notably respectful community. Much of it is self-selecting, thanks to listeners who figure out early on if the podcast isn’t for them. But it also shows there’s a substantial audience hungry for a pop-culture discussion that treats radical inclusivity as an aspirant or default position. Edidin reports “zero pushback” from the listenership over his transition. Across multiple digital hubs, including a website, a Tumblr, a Twitter account and now a Discord channel, Edidin estimates having to delete under 20 comments in four years. That’s itself a demonstration that another comics fandom is possible.
And it’s not the limit of Edidin’s contribution to a healthier comics culture. In November, he collaborated with BuzzFeed to reveal a senior editor at DC Comics, Eddie Berganza, as a serial sexual harasser. DC fired Berganza within days of the expose. Comicbook.com awarded Edidin its Person of the Year for 2017, considering the Berganza article to set a “high watermark for comics journalism and sets a standard for future reporting on serious topics that affect the industry.”
As listeners know, Edidin identifies strongly with Cyclops, whose obsessive focus and frequent humorlessness does not always render him an embraceable character. (Stokes, by contrast, identifies with Longshot, who “cares so hard about something that he has the ability to bend reality.”) “Uptight jerks need role models too,” he jokes, before turning serious: “He’s a pretty good model for those of us who recognize we’re deeply fucked up and flawed and still doing our best to be the adults in the room.”
But Cyclops, whose most recent adult incarnation took a turn into mutant-revolutionary territory, is also worth embracing politically. “Xavier’s goals are largely about assimilation and about proving that mutants are like everyone else, proving that mutants can be good guys and shaping mutants into being perceived as a model minority,” says Edidin.
“Under Cyclops,” he continues, “the rhetoric you see and especially the political thrust of mutants as a group is – there’s a term that comes up in disability activism that is so utterly and perfectly reflective: ‘Nothing About Us Without Us.’ ... The idea [is] that mutants should have a degree of self-determination and dignity as mutants, not just relative to their ability to conform to, exist within and pass as human. It goes from working within systems to resisting them.”