Not content with merely saving the world from godlike despots, genetic cleansing and global annihilation, the X-Men have spent the past half-century tackling a large swath of social issues.
Iceman, one of the original X-Men, is one of several to come out as gay. One X-Men movie centered on biomedical ethics. And Magneto once said he intends to fight the war between humans and mutants “by any means necessary.” The line is a nod to another revolutionary with an affinity for the letter “X” who ascended during the Civil Rights era.
But the latest X-Men controversy isn’t the result of a Marvel decision. Instead it involves a surreptitious effort by an Indonesian Muslim man who’s been drawing comics for years.
Ardian Syaf, a penciler for the “X-Men Gold” comic book series, inserted two references to what critics are calling “anti-Christian” and “anti-Jewish” iconography as religious tensions flare in his home country.
The references allude to the controversy surrounding Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian leader in a Muslim-majority nation, according to the Associated Press. Purnama has been charged with blasphemy after a speech surfaced in which he said the Koran doesn’t require Muslims to vote solely for Muslim leaders. He claimed that his critics, Muslim leaders who said otherwise, were lying. Some reports say a maliciously edited version of his remarks stoked the anger.
He later apologized. His trial has been delayed until after an election next week, the Australian Broadcasting Company reported. But the controversy has sparked months of massive protests in the world’s fourth most populous country, including one demonstration that Syaf said he attended.
And now the strife has seeped into one of America’s most popular comic book franchises.
In ‘X-Men Gold,’ the first allusion to Indonesia’s turmoil is a scene featuring Kitty Pryde, one of the most prominent Jewish characters in the Marvel comic universe, telling a crowd she’s the newest leader of the X-Men, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Her head blocks the sign of a nearby jewelry store in such a way that the word “Jew” appears next to her. Another sign shows the number 212 — a reference to Dec. 2, 2016, the date of a huge protest in Jakarta.
The second reference is from a scene in an all-X-Men baseball game. Russian mutant Colossus is seen thwacking away at a baseball, his hulking muscles encased in a T-shirt that says QS 5:51.
That Koranic verse instructs adherents to “not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are allies of one another.”
In a statement, a spokesman for Marvel said the company had no knowledge of the meaning behind the references hidden in plain sight.
“These implied references do not reflect the views of the writer, editors or anyone else at Marvel and are in direct opposition of the inclusiveness of Marvel Comics and what the X-Men have stood for since their creation,” the statement said.
— Epicstream (@FantasyandScifi) April 11, 2017
On Wednesday, Marvel announced that Syaf had been “terminated immediately,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Some of his work will be seen in the next two issues of “X-Men Gold” because they’ve already been shipped to the printer, but other artists will do the penciling in future issues until a permanent replacement is assigned.
Syaf did not respond to requests for comments for this article, but he told the Jakarta Post newspaper that he decided to insert the messages after taking part in a rally.
“QS 5:51 is the verse mocked,” he said. “This is very special to me. I want to put it in my work. That page was drawn after I got back from the ‘212’ rally.”
He also told the newspaper that he believes that being friends with Jews and Christians is acceptable, “but choosing a non-[Muslim] as a leader is forbidden. That’s what the verse says. What can I do as a Muslim? … If I worked at DC, I could put [the messages] in a Superman comic book.”
For years, Syaf’s Facebook page had been an intersection of his career as a comic book artist, his identity as a Muslim and his political beliefs.
He’d post an elaborate drawing of Batman one day, and soon after share a prayer for Allah to protect the people of Syria. Sometimes he bantered with fans or posted photos and drawings of himself and his corner desk, a glimpse into the private world where he cooked up images devoured by people across the world.
But a Facebook update by him Monday night acknowledged that his decision to publicly air his gripes about Purnama will probably close the book on another passion:
This post has been updated.