Social Justice Learning With the X-Men and Other Graphic Novels

In the wake of New York Comic Con, I am examining the use of comics in education. You can see the whole series, begin Educating Through Graphic Novels, or Using Comics to Teach History.

One of the main reasons I always enjoyed the X-Men was because they (like Spider-Man as well) were outcasts to the world they protected. Also, they could reflect whatever downtrodden group (women, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, the disabled) was most recently maligned. Some could pass as “normal” but they still felt the connection to their brethren who were more openly ostracized for their foreignness (international or otherworldly), the color of their skin (blue in Beast’s case), or their ability/disability (see Professor X). They even reflected real-world hatred when they were cast out by a corrupt televangelist playing on fear in God, Loves, Man Kills that shows mutant children being lynched or the case of Magneto’s childhood experiences in a Nazi prison camp that we learn about in Gold Rush. There are a number of other comics that directly address social justice issues more directly than the X-Men. I discussed previously the way The Mongomery Story encouraged some to follow Martin Luther King, Jr. and other comics like Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow that address civil rights issues. Here are some others.

On Social Justice



The idea of comics being beacons of social justice is nothing new. The Amazonian warrior known as Wonder Woman was a champion of feminism and woman’s rights long before Gal Gadot held the lasso of truth. Yes, there are arguments to made that Wonder Woman is a victim of sexist comic tropes of her as a sex symbol more than heroine, but she has also succeeded in becoming an icon for many empowered women as well. So which is it? It’s a topic that your class can tackle on the successes and failings of the roles of women in comics. Lumberjanes is a great modern comic that shows us group of empowered monster fighting girls at camp.

Image: Comixology

Some comics have been on both the wrong and right side of history. Captain America, who was created by Jewish New Yorkers, battled Nazis before Pearl Harbor also was okay with Japanese stereotypes and possibly internment. That same Captain would leave his role after his disenchantment after battling Nixon-era corruption. Now there is a new Captain America, Sam Wilson, is the former Falcon, an African-American social justice warrior. Fox News became upset about the new Captain battling a villainous group known as the Sons of the Serpent, who are acting as an armed militia along the U.S./Mexico border. Tucker Carlson felt he was unfairly targeting conservatives. It’s obvious that they’re not afraid to tackle controversial issues. Student’s can examine the complexity with which these characters reflect the flaws of the authors and the nation of the time.



Many comics confront racism head-on while other early comics blatantly exhibit racist ideology. Both can be examined for ways the country has changed and ways it still needs to evolve. Some characters, like Green Lantern even lamented their own biases. Others, like Black Panther (yes despite the fact that all the native African characters have black in their title), defies stereotypes by being a wealthy king from a modern and technologically advanced nation. History Comics presents a number of addition comics that discuss the role of African-Americans in comics. One of my favorites is Moon Girl, a young African-American girl who is also a super-genius.

Green Lantern and Green Arrow reflect on their failings

Police Violence

Batman, who always had a complicated relationship with law enforcement, confronts police violence directly in Batman #44. Gotham has always been rife with police corruption and malfeasance even evidenced in the movies where Falcone and the Joker seem to have control over the GPD. The issue confronts the complexities of the subject when 15-year-old Peter Duggio, who marks remarkable similarities to Trayvon Martin,  is shot in the stomach by Gotham police veteran Ned Howler. In the story, Duggio is a frightened boy who emerges from a fight with local gang members from the bodega his father owns. He is shot before he can respond to the officer’s demand to lie down. The issue also confronts the fault of the entrepreneur, Bruce Wayne, whose own actions may have contributed to the incident. These are difficult questions our nation continues to grapple with and can lead to insight and examination for students.


Gender & Sexual Identity

Of course, there have long been non-mainstream works like Gay Comix that broach the controversial topics of sexual and gender identity, but the Comics Code Authority often opposed these efforts. In 1992, Alpha Flight’s (an X-Men branch) North Star came out as gay. There have been many indie comics though where are a character’s sexuality was just a common part of their story like in Maggie the Mechanic. The Authority even show two massively powerful gay heroes adopting a child. Fun Home, discussed more in the Banned Books section, is another powerful tale of self-examination.

Image Comics was well ahead of the curve when they brought forth Cassandra in The Wicked and the Divine who became a goddess and a powerful representation of a trans hero. The webcomic As the Crow Flies features a trans girl, Sydney, who is striving to live her life while at a Christian summer camp and making a few friends. Even though she wasn’t a major character, the fact that a major comic like Batgirl introduced Alysia, Batgirl’s roommate, and best friend, as trans was a big step. Once again Lumberjanes forges a path for all when Jo comes out as trans to Barney who is non-binary.


In addition to the aforementioned Professor X, a number of other comic characters have incredible abilities that surpass whatever disabilities with which they may also grapple. In Batman: The Killing Joke Batgirl becomes paralyzed after being shot, but it doesn’t stop her continuing to fight crime in a new way. Early on Thor was also physically disabled and would transform with lightning while Silhouette was always paralyzed but powerful. Several popular members of Alpha Flight were afflicted with dwarfism. Hawkeye and Echo have hearing impairments. Dr. Curt Connors and Cyborg dealt with their amputations in different ways while Dr. Mid-Nite, Stick, Madame Web, and Daredevil are heroes whose visual impairments are innately part of their character’s story and skillset. Zach Whelan’s book Disability in Comic Books and Graphic Narratives discusses more on the role of disability in comics.


Speedy2.jpgA number of superheroes like Tony Stark and Batman have been forced to face their own addictions while Bane’s addiction would eventually lead to insanity. The Green Arrow/Green Lantern team-up where they confront drug abuse though is one of the most well-known examples of comics taking on addiction.

For more insight, I recommend reading Ramzi Fawaz’s New Mutants which examines the role gender, race, and sexual identity have played in comics.

Banned Books

An examination of comics and their impact on society wouldn’t be complete without noting some important comics that were banned. Having just celebrated Banned Books Week at the end of September, I find renewed importance in challenging the overreach by school boards to remove worthwhile content that they, for some nominal reason, find objectionable enough to censor. Much of this censorship is overreaching just like often occurred in the early days of the Comics Authority. Even the Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece Maus which I have previously mentioned has been banned for supposed anti-ethnic sentiment in its discussion of the Holocaust.  Here are some other great comics that have at one time or another been banned.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi – Though recognized as one of the best books of 2003 for its story of a young girl in Tehran who lives through the Islamic revolution, this book has endured a fair amount censorship in recent years. Beginning in 2013 schools in Chicago and then more nationally began removing the book claiming issues with coarse language while some parents voiced that it was wrong for students to have to read about any Muslims.

This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki – This was the first graphic novel to be labeled as a Caldecott Honor book which vaulted its popularity along with its challenges. This is the story of two teens enjoying their summer along with its unexpected complications of depression, heartbreak, and hope which some deem inappropriate because of cursing and teen pregnancy.

Bone by Jeff Smith – This modern classic about outcast creatures called Bones venture through The Valley surrounded by mythical creatures who they befriend and battle as they find their path in a new world. It has been banned in multiple states for perceived violence and mention of smoking.

Drama by Raina Telgemeier – In this award-winning book, Callie, a consummate theatre nerd, must endure the trials and travails that come with the horrors of high school. Most of the objection comes because of a shared kiss between two gay characters.

Blankets by Craig Thompson – Here we find out about a boy in a devoutly religious home, his sibling rivalry, a budding romance, and abuse. This great story was said to have obscene imagery, but it is really quite beautiful.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel – In this story, a girl deals with her strict father who is an English teacher and funeral director who she doesn’t realize is secretly gay until she begins to come out herself. Despite being widely acclaimed, some critics have described it’s discussion and depiction of gay relationships as pornographic.

Ultimately it is clear that graphic novels are not just silly stories but have confronted deeply meaningful and pertinent issues.

And To learn more I suggest checking out Comics in Education.

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