I don’t know how to express my full thoughts on the basement arc beyond sheer anger and pain and frustration and sadness.
Nowadays online, we sometimes see the slogan “if you can’t make your own neurotransmitters, store bought is fine.” The basement arc really shows how much that kind of stupid positivity really has to stand up against. The stigma against mental illness, and the stigma against treatment for mental illness beyond mere talk therapy, is massive. In the 1990s, when this story was written, the vast majority saw medication for mental illness an addictive crutch for moral weakness. A lot of people still feel the same way today, if they would say it out loud or not.
I don’t know what story the authors and editors of these issues of X-Men, Uncanny X-men, Wolverine, and X-force thought they were writing. Maybe they thought they were writing a story about a bunch of heroes who tried their hardest to help someone who just turned out to be a monster not worth saving. But that isn’t the story that they put on the page.
What they put on the page was the story of a deeply mentally ill victim of trauma and abuse seeking help after he’s no longer able to self-medicate. And the people who claim they are helping him: refuse to medicate him, declare him morally and emotionally weak, physically restrain and bind him, lock him in a prison cell, put him in a ‘soothing’ environment he has no connection to, dehumanize and treat him like an animal, ostracize anyone who doesn’t participate in his dehumanization, and ultimately wash their hands of him and send him to prison.
Things that bother me the most about the basement arc:
- Sabretooth provides the X-men an actionable solution to suppress his killing urge that harms no one, and they refuse to participate from a condescending angle of moral superiority. This situation is strongly reminiscent of the stigma against mental health treatment and medication.
- Charles Xavier acknowledges that Magneto’s crimes come from his trauma, but refuses to acknowledge Sabretooth’s history of abuse and trauma.
- While Sabretooth is mentally incapacitated due to brain injury they literally dehumanize him and treat him like an animal while still claiming that he’s untrustworthy and evil.
- The X-men/X-force stigmatize, ostracize and berate the only person who treats Sabretooth with sympathy; while the narrative acknowledges that Tabitha treats him with sympathy due to her own experience with abuse and trauma.
- The X-men insist on confining Sabretooth in an unfamiliar and dehumanizing ‘soothing’ environment, despite Sabretooth expressing his discomfort toward and alienation from said environment.
- Gambit deliberately taunting and retraumatizing mentally incapacitated Sabretooth with not only images of his past crimes, but also just generally terrible things he didn’t actually do.
- The X-men finally give up on Sabretooth not because of anything he did or said, but because of violent thoughts in the privacy of his own mind. Violent thoughts that weren’t even directed at human beings, but rather toward the same animals that humans hunt and kill for food.
- The X-men soothe their own egos when Sabretooth goes berserk and escapes by saying they ‘did all they could’, despite, as above, being presented with an actionable, harmless solution at the outset.