Professor X is one of the most famous disabled characters. Since his debut in 1963, he’s been known as the formidable mentor who turned his mansion into a safe space and school for marginalized people. Unlike superhero billionaires Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne, Xavier used his fortune to shelter and organize other heroes who inevitably outshined him. That’s what he wanted.
To many people, the X-Men are a collection of cool characters. For myself as a disabled teen, it was hard not to notice how many characters with physical and mental disabilities gravitated towards the X-Men, as opposed to the Avengers and Justice League. Xavier’s found family welcomed them.
The Professor X of the comics is more complicated than Patrick Stewart’s lovable teacher in the films. While the Xavier of the comics wanted to change minds consensually, he hacked the minds of people who attacked his students. It was partially his failure to set moral boundaries for telepathy that influenced his student Jean Grey to become the world-destroying Dark Phoenix.
Some fans consider his greatest flaw to be his incrementalism. He gets passed off as not radical enough since he’d like humans and Mutants to coexist. But this is a character that taught Mutants to weaponize their powers and routinely sent them on missions around the globe to punch robots. It’s true that he wanted humans to lessen their bigotry against Mutants culturally, but he also fought anti-Mutant legislation. In stories like God Loves, Man Kills, his students fought religious bigots.
He was only an incrementalist in comparison to Magneto, a villain who started his career in Uncanny X-Men #1 by stealing nuclear missiles for an attempted genocide of humans. Where Xavier’s career is nitpicked, Magneto seldom gets second-guessed for frequently trying to ravage the planet so badly that it would be borderline uninhabitable. Magneto’s idea is that some Mutants will just survive because they are strong, ignoring that many vulnerable ones will die. There isn’t much room for disabled Mutants in Magneto’s utopia.
This is where Xavier is right. His main point is not that humans can grow and be less racist. It’s that the most vulnerable people matter. Xavier believed that you can build a community by helping people and teaching them the value of helping others. X-Mansion became the embodiment of an idea. It was a fantasy destination you could reach by bus where people wanted to accept you as you are.
There, the likes of Forge and Beast got the resources they needed to build assistive devices. Forge was an amputee who used these resources to build his own prosthetics, as well as ones for other Mutants. Beast used the same resources to design a bracelet that let Rogue touch people without drowning their life energy, and the ruby quartz visor that let Cyclops see. This brain trust even built several versions of Xavier’s mobility chair.
There, Storm built a greenhouse where her claustrophobia didn’t trigger. And in that space she let Wolverine shelter when his PTSD was too great to let him socialize.
There, superheroes played baseball together.
X-Mansion was also usually drawn without a wheelchair ramp. The fiction didn’t address why the place lacked wheelchair accessibility when its wealthy owner was a wheelchair user. It became a joke among disabled readers. The lack of a ramp was a microcosm for the problem of having well-meaning abled creators in control.
I sometimes recount Xavier’s retconned history to make disabled nerds laugh. Few of them believe this all happened. To them, he’s still the wise and kind Patrick Stewart.
The last sixty years of Xavier have changed a lot in the last twenty years. If that sounds confusing, consider retcons. Retcons, or retroactive continuity, are when a writer changes the established history of fiction. New writers who join long-running series often change the continuity to make it support what they want to write now. Superhero comics have a particularly controversial history with new writers contradicting past events.
You could say Xavier’s retcon problems started with Magneto. After some 90’s shenanigans, Xavier telepathically absorbed the darkest parts of Magneto’s mind. This absorbed portion fused with Xavier’s own repressed thoughts. In a retcon, it turned out Xavier had been psychically locking away his negative thoughts for thirty years in order to be a pure-hearted guide for his students. The fusion of Magneto’s megalomania and Xavier’s repression became a new entity, called Onslaught. Onslaught kidnapped Xavier and tried to take over the world with his own evil X-Men team.
It was one of those big crossover events Marvel loves. By the end of the story, the Fantastic Four and Avengers were all dead. And while they’d all be resurrected in a few years, and while Onslaught was destroyed, Xavier had a new problem. He faced a more dangerous enemy than ever before: a generation of cynical writers who saw the potential of subverting him into a bad guy.
Soon after, the X-Men discovered that Xavier had spent years figuring out how to kill them all and saved the information for future contingencies. Allegedly he’d worried about what to do if they ever went rogue. His students were left shaken and horrified.
This was odd to longtime readers. In the published comics, Xavier had never sought to kill Apocalypse or Juggernaut when they wreaked havoc. That he made plans to kill his own students seemed out of character. Further, you might ask how Xavier hid those files for decades inside a mansion that was thoroughly explored by basically omnipotent teenagers. That would be a good question. That’s the start of the problem with retcons.
Joss Whedon had a run on the X-Men. He retconned that the Danger Room, the X-Men’s high-tech training center, had gained self-awareness years ago. In the retcon, Xavier had lobotomized the Danger Room’s A.I. so his students could keep training. Apparently the Danger Room kept evolving intelligence, and Xavier had kept lobotomizing it, until it broke free and attacked everybody.
These retconned events had to have happened during the years when Xavier was publicly fighting for civil rights. It didn’t gel with any of the comics published during those years. The Xavier of those decades would’ve been more likely to make a deal with the A.I. and teach it. At worst, he could’ve consulted the dozens of engineer heroes and dozens of friendly A.I. characters in Marvel Comics before it became a problem.
In another story, Cyclops and Havok were retconned into having a third brother they’d never mentioned. This was Vulcan, a cosmically-powered abled guy who Xavier’s recklessness got killed. The retcon posed that Xavier had been so embarrassed about his mistake that he psychically erased Vulcan from everyone’s memories. Xavier was shamed for this old betrayal that a writer had just invented.
This became a pattern. Xavier was held up as a paragon and knocked down by retconned revelations in story after story for shock value. Rather than developing Xavier into a new phase of his life where he made bad choices or became corrupt, Marvel rewrote the history of a disabled icon into a disgrace.
One story went far enough back to say Xavier was a murderer before he was born. Xavier was rewritten to have had a fetal twin, who was apparently also an evil space demon. This was Cassandra Nova.
Despite Mutant powers not typically manifesting until puberty, both Xavier and Nova were amazingly powerful psychics in the womb.
Despite all medical science, both of them were conscious and self-aware in the womb.
Xavier’s fetus was scared of Nova’s “evil” fetus. He used his psychic powers to force their mother to miscarry and kill Nova. It is the only story I’ve ever read that insists upon personhood for fetuses and then blames them for miscarriages.
Even more ridiculous, Nova somehow survived without her doctors or parents noticing. She grew into a legendary space monster who was bent on revenge. Somehow she didn’t notice that Vulcan and the sentient Danger Room were also plotting revenge. The retcons now didn’t just contradict published comics history; they now contradicted each other.
Then the Illuminati came up. Despite decades of canon to the contrary, it turned out there was a secret order manipulating world events and controlling everything up to the Infinity Gems (the “Infinity Stones” in the MCU movies). This self-named Illuminati included Tony Stark, Mr. Fantastic, Namor of Atlantis, Dr. Strange, Black Bolt of the Inhumans, and…you guessed it: Xavier.
Xavier was retconned to be a founding member of the Illuminati, brought in to keep Mutants in check. The Illuminati plotted various unethical schemes that didn’t really fit their established characters, including shooting Hulk into space to get rid of him.
Only Black Panther of Wakanda turned down membership with the Illuminati. In an iconic and ironic panel, he told Xavier and the others, “Walk away now.”
You might ask why Xavier didn’t summon the help of all these world powers all those times that Mutants were nearly annihilated. Many classic X-Men stories don’t make sense if Xavier had the Illuminati on speed dial.
These nonsensical revelations coincided with a decline in disability rep in the X-Men. When these “revelations” cost Xavier his role as the head of the X-Men, he wasn’t replaced by another disabled person. In the 2010s, Marvel Comics mandated that no new Mutants be created, so new disabled Mutants couldn’t be introduced at all. Existing disabled Mutants, like the Forge and the literal brain-in-a-jar No-Girl, were not elevated in status. Following the Decimation storyline, many Mutants lost their powers entirely, including some disabled Mutants.
Thusly the pool of existing disabled Mutant characters shrank in the same period that Xavier fell from grace. The kinds of Mutants that made disabled readers like myself feel at home in X-Mansion were dwindling, and those that existed didn’t matter.
The X-Men were taken over by the increasingly violent Cyclops and Emma Frost. During this time, Cyclops’s analogy-to-disability eye beams were “cured.” Frost went on to do numerous unethical things with her role, including replacing Xavier in the Illuminati. She never faced similar consequences to Xavier. This new X-Men was more aggressive in the pro-Mutant cause, including assassinating anyone who concerned them.
The white disabled Xavier was replaced by white abled characters, making the X-Men’s upper hierarchy even less intersectional. Storm might have been expected to step up, but during this period she left the X-Men as she was paired off with Black Panther. For an introduction on the X-Men’s relationship with race, I recommend Phenderson Clark’s essay “On Malcolm, Martin and that X-Men Analogy Thing”.1
It matters that as the X-Men became more violent and radical, their leaders were cis, straight white people without disabilities. The tangible representation backslid as the metaphor of radicalized minorities escalated. Non-marginalized people were being centered in one of the few superhero spaces where they traditionally weren’t. Abled readers were being told they were the ones capable of doing what disabled ones were too afraid or corrupt to do. It was a betrayal of the idea of the X-Men as that place where people of various marginalizations supported each other.
When Xavier challenged Cyclops and Frost’s violent regime, he was humiliated with a new retcon. Frost psychically hacked into his mind, revealing that he had been editing the thoughts of his students whenever he wanted ever since the 1960’s. This managed to contradict both decades of published comics and to contradict previous retcons, as the Onslaught saga had already rewritten Xavier as locking away all of his own negative urges. It was downright silly that writers felt they needed to change even more of his history in order to discredit him.
Disgraced, Xavier walked away from his own school.
Oh yeah—the writers also made him walk again. It was done off-page; we never saw Xavier learning about it. Instead it was a shocking reveal for the abled characters. The Scarlet Witch used her reality-warping powers to steal Xavier’s telepathy and restore his legs. The writers actually made Xavier say, “I assume in some way Wanda Maximoff gave me back the use of my legs because she wanted to show me what being a cripple really was.”
Just as Marvel stripped away his history, they stripped away his identity as a disabled character. There had been other times in Marvel history when one “miracle” or another healed Xavier. He had never spoken like that, though. It didn’t sound like him. This time his becoming abled was deliberately paired with his fall from grace. They’d taken away everything that made Xavier meaningful to disabled audiences.
After you ruin a character that thoroughly, there’s only one thing bad writers can do to you.
Professor X was killed in 2012.
In Avengers Vs. X-Men, Cyclops threatened the entire world. Even Magneto begged Xavier for help, so Xavier faced Cyclops one last time. It was a few pages in the middle of an issue. Xavier died like a footnote, with no one to remark on the irony that he’d tried to stop Cyclops years prior. Characters buried him in an epilogue.
But it didn’t end. The Nazi supervillain Red Skull stole Xavier’s corpse for the next big Marvel crossover, called Axis. Red Skull mutilated Xavier’s remains, cutting out the part of his brain that had psychic powers, and grafted it to himself to steal them. Red Skull used his new psychic powers to turn all the world’s heroes into villains.
I began writing this essay when I realized a Nazi mutilating Xavier’s corpse didn’t bother me. It should have. But his character had already been so destroyed that this event was excessive and silly.
It’s still valuable for fiction to have disabled mentor characters who slip up, make mistakes, or even grow corrupt – so long as that fiction has many other disabled characters. In mainstream entertainment, there aren’t enough. Professor X was a rare gift to us from the American Canon.
The best thing about Professor X now is that the public still thinks of him as the smiling Patrick Stewart, cripping it up in theaters.
That Professor X was a creation of Fox. Marvel has the film rights back now, so the next time we see Xavier in a movie theater, it’ll be their vision. It’ll be the vision of the writers they decide to employ. You hope they do better going forward. The most optimistic thing one can say for the future of Professor X is that Marvel’s movies are notoriously unfaithful to their comics.
 “On Malcolm, Martin and that X-Men Analogy Thing”. Phenderson Clark. February 21, 2015. https://pdjeliclark.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/on-malcolm-martin-and-that-x-men-analogy-thing/
© 2020 John Wiswell