When “X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills” was released in 1982, I was about two years or so into my “Uncanny X-Men” reading. They had tussled with Doctor Doom, quashed a world war threatened by Magneto, soared alongside the Starjammers, and thwarted the Brood. But here, in Marvel’s fifth graphic novel, Chris Claremont wrote a story that was noticeably more grounded than what I’d been reading in the main title. The X-Men were still sworn to protect a world that hates and fears them, but Claremont and artist Brent Eric Anderson would show readers what hate and fear really meant. The kid gloves were off.
Thirty years later and the images and scenes from the book have stuck with me. Some so powerful that I’d go as far as to say that they’ve haunted me. Claremont, while not always striking a melodious chord with his dialogue, is indeed an expert storyteller. No time traveling, no galactic adventures, and no costumed villains making power plays for world domination. “God Loves, Man Kills” is a story about the worst, most destructive, characteristics of man.
The book opens late into the night as two children in their pajamas, a brother and sister, attempt to escape from their armed pursuers. They’re caught, shot in cold blood, and hung from a playground swing set with the signs hanging across both of their small chests. Inscribed upon them: “Muties”. Their murder was staged to serve as a chilling message to the children who were meant to make the appalling discovery the next morning. Magneto finds the bodies first and frees them from their disgraceful bonds. Anderson’s Magneto looks the age of man who would have survived the German concentration camps. His face is worn from a life of fighting for his cause, right, wrong or otherwise, but his frame remains tall and domineering.
Reverend William Stryker is introduced in the following scene. He cites some passages from the Bible as he prepares a sermon, then he studies the X-Men: Cyclops, Wolverine, Ariel, Storm, Colossus, and Nightcrawler. Stryker, the head of a worldwide ministry, comments that he’s hopeful the team of costumed heroes won’t be around for much longer, but we really don’t have a concept for how awful this guy is from this brief taste of him. However, by the end of the book, you’ll find that this is about the vilest character the X-Men have ever gone up against.
Kitty Pryde, ever the spunky teenager, is decidedly unspunky as she clobbers a fellow student from her dance class. Peter Rasputin and his sister Illyana pull the sparring youngsters apart, but the fight goes from physical to verbal. Kitty says she attacked the boy for spewing Reverend Stryker’s message of contempt for mutantkind. X-Men friend Stevie Hunter attempts to quell things by telling Kitty that she shouldn’t be hurt by another person’s words. Kitty, fuming and reluctant to choose her words carefully, lays this one on Stevie: “Suppose he called me a nigger-lover Stevie?! Would you be so damn tolerant then?!!” Claremont’s use of inflammatory dialogue, and this is a powerful example, works to shock the reader into understanding the plight of the mutant. Anderson captures the near-immeasurable heat of Kitty’s anger in this sequence as the two teens tear at one another over mutant rights.
“God Loves, Man Kills” is one of Claremont’s most grave X-Men stories, but it isn’t an entirely solemn affair. When Kitty, Peter and Illyana return to Xavier’s School for the Gifted, Logan immediately recognizes that Kitty has had more than her chops busted. The two share a nice piece of dialogue that exemplifies that the X-Men are more a family than a team:
Logan: That’s some shiner you’re sportin’, pun’kin – scrap or accident?
Logan: Fair fight?
Kitty: I guess so.
Logan: You win?
Logan: How come?
Kitty: I guess I don’t have your killer instincts, Wolverine.
Logan: That all there is to it?
It’s the dynamic of this book that has made the X-Men one of the most resilient properties in comic books. The familial relationship of the team’s characters is what distinguishes the X-books from most of its contemporaries. Claremont, who had been on the title for over a decade at this point and defined most of these characters, knew them intimately and could write them so. They could be frustrated with one another, or playful, or totally vulnerable. Yes, the X-Men are a team of heroes, but they’re a family above all.
After a televised debate between X-Men patriarch Charles Xavier and Reverend Stryker, the Reverend’s soldiers, known as the Purifiers, kidnap Charles, Ororo, and Scott, staging a car accident to make it appear as though the three had been killed. The X-Men investigate and quickly discern that their friends and mentor are alive. The magnitude of William Stryker’s ominous plan is revealed: using a mechanism similar to Cerebro, Stryker is going to force Charles to reveal and exterminate the entire mutant race. But what does Stryker have against mutants? Ah, the bigger reveal.
Revered William Stryker was a military man in a previous life, married and with a child on the way. One afternoon, while traveling to Phoenix with his pregnant wife Marcy, their car flipped and Marcy went into labor. She delivers her child, but we never see the “monster”, as Stryker puts it. First Stryker kills his infant son, then he snaps Marcy’s neck. Colorist Steve Oliff uses only a few neutral hues to shade this nightmarish backstory. Claremont’s real monster exposes himself. For all of the terrible things that Stryker has been responsible for, and for what he has planned, this horrifying scene solidifies the villain as inhuman as any of the supernatural adversaries the X-Men have faced off against.
I could be wrong, but I believe “God Loves, Man Kills” is the first time that Magneto and the X-Men teamed-up together to fight a common enemy. As a kid, it was the first time I had seen it. My only knowledge of the villain was from issues #149 and #150 of “The Uncanny X-Men” and an episode of “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends”. Though my exposure to the character was limited, I knew this: Magneto was a bad-ass. Claremont uses him effectively here as he rationally explains his point of view. He’s still determined to rule the planet so that mutants can exist without fear of persecution, but he’s not bellowing his message to the leaders of the free world while wearing his signature menacing helmet. Magneto calmly expounds on his position to the X-Men and informs them that they will inherit his throne after he’s gone.
Some of the most memorable character moments in the book go to Wolverine. I still find it immeasurably cool to see Logan use his claws to slice through a car starting at the glass, which barely cracks, right through the frame. Another scene has Wolverine playing bad cop/bad cop with Magneto as they interrogate one of Stryker’s Purifiers and Wolverine stares down the flunky in his own inimitable fashion. Claremont and Anderson give Wolverine plenty of moments to reveal bad-assery in “God Loves, Man Kills”. Even as he walks out of the Danger Room, chomping on his cigar, he slices off a mannequin’s head as he tells his teammates that “games are for kids”.
When the climactic showdown between the X-Men and Stryker is presented it’s an intense set piece. Stryker is in the middle of airing a live sermon, just as he uses a brainwashed Charles Xavier to begin killing all of the mutants on Earth. Mutants’ ears and noses begin to bleed, including a Senator who’s sitting in the audience. Magneto attempts to take out the Reverend, who is spouting biblical passages, but is struck down by Charles. Then, to make certain we know that Stryker is unconscionable to his core, the Reverend’s closest aide runs up to him, with blood streaming from her nose and ears, she begs Stryker for mercy:
Anne: You don’t care! Do the lives of the faithful mean nothing to you?
Reverend Stryker: I am set upon a righteous course, Anne. Nothing – and no one – will deter me from it! A true daughter of heaven would have accepted her fate. Your resistance reveals your true allegiance.
Stryker pushes Anne from his pulpit where she falls to her death. On live television. Anderson once again captures the horror of the scene as the TV camera follows Anne’s descent to the floor below, offering a close-up of her twisted head, dripping with blood. The X-Men free Charles and the action comes to a halt as the heroes face their predator in front of a captive audience. Scott confronts Stryker for his violent crusade against mutants but the Reverend is unwavering. He picks up a gun and points it directly at Kitty Pryde as the X-Men stand bravely in front of a man who is certain that his is the will of God. A gun blasts, followed by a powerful scene featuring no dialogue or captions. An officer shoots Stryker. We get a close-up of the officer’s face. He’s confident that he made the right decision. We don’t get the reaction of the X-Men, we got straight to a scene involving an audience member and another police officer:
Audience Member: That cop – shot the Reverend!
Police Officer: Yup – who was about to shoot an unarmed little girl. If that’s the word of God, it’s sure changed some since Sunday School.
Audience Member: But what about the muties?!
Police Officer: What about ‘em? They’ve done as much – or as little – as you clowns. As far as I’m concerned, they’re free to go. An’ good luck to ‘em. They’ll need it.
I’ve always enjoyed this quick switch in perspective and the viewpoint of the cop, who lets us know that, as much as some people may hate and fear them, others have the backs of the X-Men. Reading “God Loves, Man Kills”, you get the sense that Claremont had finally been given the chance to throw everything he wanted to put in the main book in this dark tale. Marvel’s line of Graphic Novels presented stories with themes that were more mature and dialogue that leaned racier than what we would find on the comic racks from the Big Two.
As optimistic as the X-Men remain, the silver-lining is razor thin. In a brief epilogue, Magneto and the X-Men discuss what happens next. Magneto informs the team that public support for Stryker’s mutant views remains, though his methods were considered questionable. Xavier, feeling defeated, considers siding with Magneto before Scott passionately defends the Professor’s dream. Magneto leaves and the X-Men are left to breathe a collected sigh of relief now that their nightmare has ended for the time being.
Thirty years later, reading my mangled edition, I find myself enjoying Claremont and Anderson’s story today as much as I did when my dad originally purchased this beloved book that, in retrospect, was well beyond my maturity level (I was eleven). It didn’t need Deathbird, Belasco or the Hellfire Club to complicate the lives of Xavier’s students. “God Love, Man Kills” featured a worse enemy: fear and hate.
X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills
Written by: Chris Claremeont
Art by: Brent Eric Anderson
Inks: Brent Eric Anderson
Colors: Steve Oliff
Letters: Tom Orzechowski
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Original Publication Date: November 1982
Pages: 96 pages