The X-Men, that team of mutants who have been fighting off evil in all its incarnations since the 1960s, have for decades been commended as an allegory for civil rights issues. Mutants are themselves a people shunned, feared and hated by society for their differences, over which they themselves have no control. And while the “X gene,” which gave these heroes and villains super powers, is different from race, gender and sexuality, the Stan Lee-created comic book universe is considered a shining example of how comics have long reflected society and social values.
Throughout the years, many queer people have had particularly deep relationships with the characters and storylines found in the pages of comic books. For a young gay kid, X-Men comics are an escape from the mundane real world, sure, but each issue is also a problem-solving guide to dealing with hate and bigotry, always sharing the importance of never giving up on a world that can stubbornly refuse to understand you.
Today, as we honor the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day (or World HIV Day) — a day when we pay tribute to those we’ve lost and also celebrate the strides we’ve made in moving towards a cure — let’s take a look at one X-Men storyline in particular which bears a direct connection to HIV and the very real epidemic that ravaged the gay community throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the Legacy Virus.
In 1993, X-Men comic book titles fearlessly breached the subject of HIV. Though not a head-on approach, and renamed “The Legacy Virus,” the storyline was an easily discernible, outspoken allegory detailing how a maligned people stands to cope with a disease ravaging its own community.
The Legacy Virus wasn’t identical to HIV. It was an airborne “viroid” released by an evil mutant from thousands of years in the future, only affecting those individuals with an “X-factor.” When attached to a mutant, it would cause their powers to malfunction, and their body would become incapable of creating healthy blood cells, like a fast-replicating cancer.
Symptoms that followed infection by the Legacy Virus included skin lesions, fever, a bad cough and overall weakness. This eventually led to a “flare up” of the mutant’s powers, and shortly after they would die.
Eventually the Legacy Virus was able to jump from mutants to humans, which resulted in a war of sorts between the two species, homo sapien and “homo superior” (mutants).
X-Men characters who suffered from the Legacy Virus in the early ’90s included Illyana, the younger sister of X-Man Colossus, Revanche and villains Pyro and Mastermind. All were casualties of the virus in the comic books. Many more mutants were quarantined due to their affliction.
The storyline persisted in the X-Men comic books through 2001.
The “best part of the X-Men,” says one comics scholar in the above History Channel video about the Legacy Virus, “is everyone thinks they’re getting a thing about lasers coming out of your eyes [a reference to team leader Cyclops], but what you’re really getting is a lesson in tolerance. And that’s the best super power of all.”
Eventually a cure for the Legacy Virus was developed, manufactured and spread throughout the human and mutant populations, though not without tragic losses of some of fans’ favorite characters (and the X-Man Colossus sacrificing himself to ensure the cure’s dispersement).
The Legacy Virus marks one of the darker moments in time when comic books were truly reflecting what was happening in the real world. And since the early 2000s, comics haven’t let up. Queer heroes and real-world experiences like hate crimes and same-sex weddings have practically become commonplace on their ever-progressive pages.
One can only hope that someday, as the X-Men did with the Legacy Virus, we see a cure for HIV.