Pictured: A surrogate family of students and their cool college professor.
My history as a Marvel comics fan was similar to most who grew up in the nineties I imagine. I was vaguely aware of characters such as Spider-Man but only really became interested enough to dig deeper into the comics and extra lore when they had adaptations like the various animated shows that would run on Saturday mornings. Of these, the X-Men had one of the most well regarded shows on the block and I’m not going to contest that, it’s a great show. In fact, I’m not here to say that the X-Men as a team, property, or concept are bad. What I am here to say is why I’m not particularly a fan and that the reason for that might be interesting. Starting from the simplistic view of a child, the developing opinion of a high-schooler, to the more complex distance of an adult fan.
Forewarning: This is going to be a lot more personal than my previous entries. Talking more about how these stories existed in the context of my life.
The Tomorrow People
Now, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a superhero. I was obviously not unique in this desire. When you are a kid who wants to be a superhero, you latch on to existing heroes and stories to place yourself into, especially those that inspired you to want to be a superhero in the first place. Considering that I had watched the original cartoon, and it’s follow-up X-Men: Evolution, I played more than one X-Men based video game, seen every movie about them, even owned a book that was a complete guide to the various characters with highlights of their stories, you’d think I wanted to be one of the X-Men more than anything. You would be wrong in that assessment. First of all, the heroes I imagined myself as were often of my own creation; enter Wonder Wagon who defended the neighborhood by riding down hills on to bad guys! Even when they weren’t they were never the X-Men. Why? Because the X-Men told me I wasn’t special.
Obviously not in as many words but the central idea of the X-Men is that they are all mutants. They were born with latent superpowers already inside them. In the context of their world, especially the particular works where they stood alone apart from other superheroes which was most of my education on them, you’re either a mutant and you get superpowers. Or you’re a human and you can never have them. So when I was a kid, the message I got was that what made one “special” was essentially the flip of a coin. And if you weren’t lucky enough to be born with super powers, you could not be a superhero. Which is what made other heroes more appealing when they got their powers from experiments, gadgetry, or a magical item of some description. The idea that powers were something one could obtain or receive. Moreso, unlike Superman who was more or less unique as a Kryptonian and the origin of his powers was rarely emphasized, the X-Men stories portrayed an entire society of superheroes defined by being born with their abilities. As a human, you were not only not important, if you were important, there was a chance you were the bad guy.
Hey though, that’s the simplistic viewpoint of a child. The stories portray how hard it is to be a mutant and when you’re a kid, those very factors that would make superpowers more a curse than a blessing aren’t a part of your world. Not to mention a child takes these things literally unlike when you get older and you can see them for what they’re supposed to symbolically represent. That should make it more accessible right?
Even though Marvel comics and superheroes in general maintained their place in my expanding rotation of obsessions such as Star Wars, Pokemon, and Dungeons and Dragons, the X-Men gradually faded from their high pedestal of prominence in my mind. The superhero that really captured me at the time was the Silver Surfer. Easy now in retrospect to understand why a character who was so unbound by gravity and atmosphere he could go literally anywhere and who’s goal was simply to return home was so appealing to a younger me.
Nevertheless, the X-Men came back to the fore with their films X2 X-Men United, and X-Men: the Last Stand. I saw them, I enjoyed them, but something I didn’t put together at the time was how much of that film I was seeing in the reality that surrounded me. Every high school teenager thinks they’re unique, but I can say in hindsight that I was at least in the minority for the same reason that Monty Python’s Life of Brian had one man say he wasn’t an individual in a sea of people shouting in unison that they were. On the news of the politics I was now just starting to become aware of, people were angry. In response I became angry too. Not at those above me though, rather those at my side. If mutants are born with the X-gene, I was born without the “teenagers rebel” gene. Ironically I was reflexively obedient. Nothing set me off faster than my class mates being rude or disrespectful to our teachers. So I still had the characteristic pent up anger of a growing young man venting his frustrations upon the world, just not its usual expression of lashing out against authority and challenging the status quo.
This is not a gossip piece, I’m not trying to make my fellow students look bad. It was high school. In the grand scheme of education and the grander scheme of life, it’s inconsequential and no one is their best self during it, myself included. It was only later did I put together that I saw much of what these comics talked about in those around me. My friend, let’s call her Emma (as in Frost). She was polite, charming, and was something of the Queen Bee of our little school. She was like Jean Grey or more broadly a student of Xavier, the peacefully dissenting progressive who opposed leaders and policies she viewed as systematically oppressive. Then there was a young man about my age who I’ll call Ahab (who is an X-Men bad guy to keep the theme.) He was bawdy, profane, and looking to cause trouble seemingly for the Hell of it. Akin in ways to Pyro or a disciple of Magneto. He rejected notions he saw as conformity and interpreted his lashing out and disruption as righteous.
To be perfectly fair, in this metaphor I’d definitely be Cyclops. The stick in the mud who found it hard to relax and got on better with the teacher than with the other students which made him seem even less likable because he stood himself apart from everyone.
I didn’t fall into either of the two categories though and while it would be reductionist to say one’s home life determines one’s entire outlook, it does play a strong part. Simply put, I loved my parents. This is significant in terms of relating to the X-Men because a lot of them have troubled home lives. Jubilee, Iceman, Cyclops, their parents reject, resent, or abuse them when they learn of their child’s mutant nature. While I would personally say such things call for some introspection, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine someone internalizing a parent’s disapproval of an action or life choice and seeing themselves in Iceman or Jubilee or Rogue. That’s when it all clicked into place for me. While many superheroes can be said to be rebels of one stripe or another, the X-Men and their periphery exist as the tip of the spear for whatever radical social movement the reader cares to imagine themselves as being a part of. After all, the X-Men are based out of a school for higher learning, where they learn to question the modes of thinking taught to them back home, often forming an intense bond with peers that they decide is more valid than the family they left or left them. Striping away the surface level details, they’re very nature is about mutation, evolution, something new arising within a settled society that almost anyone can be revealed to be a part of.
But hey, that’s a dramatic high school phase. As Professor X himself says, mutants and humans should live together in harmony. Even someone who in the context of the X-Men’s world would be viewed as old fashioned and trusting of formal institutions would be welcomed to have their perspective shared right?
God Loves, Man Kills
Up to this point I have been talking about how the X-Men and other superhero properties existed in the miasma of my unexamined life. As a child growing up, as a teenager struggling with social situations. This section is the point in my life where I began to view art more critically, with the burgeoning skill set I would later be formally instructed in at college.
I needn’t go into how the X-Men have been a stand in for minority groups since Claremont’s legendary run on the property. That particular theme has been talked about by much more invested experts on the subject. However this only fed into a theory I had come to believe by the time I was in college. That there was a superhero for everyone. I already wrote a whole article expounding upon the idea so you can read that here if you’re curious. The short version is that for how many superheroes there are, there must be at least one if not more that appeal to any reader enough for them to see themselves through that or those heroes. However, I had failed to consider the dark flip side to that notion. That the hero of one story is the villain of another’s. So the fans of one superhero might see the fans of another as being the real life representations of an evil that their heroes oppose.
This is reflected back into the realms of the comics. Superhero battles are nothing new, because the sheer spectacle of seeing two super powered beings combat each other is fun, even if they should otherwise be allies. Something changed over the years though. The superhero battles went from brief bouts of misunderstandings, manipulations, and minds controlled before teaming up and resuming, into these deeply ideological, world shaking conflicts where friendships are broken and there is no secret threat making the heroes fight each other. This was epitomized in the Marvel event Civil War which itself got a sequel but the X-Men even had a split amongst themselves called Schism.
The heroes had issues with other heroes and those escalated to the point where people who really should be staunch allies become enemies more bitter than any mastermind. In a sad way, it reflects the zeitgeist or at least a part of it. Where those who are in disagreement aren’t just seeing things from another view, they’re evil or just wrong and there’s no point in trying to work with them. I think everything the X-Men would have to say to me is best summed up by the opening of the 25 cent comic X-Men: Holy War.
“More people have died in the name of religion than have ever died of cancer. And we try to cure cancer.”
This is followed by a two page spread of several of X-Men literally crucified on the front lawn of their mansion with a sign hanging around one of their necks reading, “evolution is not the will of God.”
This is not the first time the comics have portrayed those of faith as villains. William Stryker of the arc God Loves, Man Kills was a preacher who killed his own son and wife when his son was born a mutant, whipped his followers into hating and hunting mutants, lead a paramilitary group called the Purifiers against the X-Men, and kidnapped Professor X from a televised debate. Truly a despicable man. That combined with the evidence presented to me by Holy War gave me one clear message about the X-Men,
“You are not welcome here.”
Now some might argue that’s the point. Imagine how mutants and those they metaphorically represent must feel. To which I would say, it’s certainly effective in getting me to consider the other side of the coin but isn’t Professor Xavier’s whole message one of peace and co-existence rather than exclusion answered with exclusion? Returning to Holy War, Jean Grey telepathically calls for help from Nurse Annie, their new and completely human medical helper to tend to the crucified X-Men. Annie freaks out and screams about hearing a voice in her head but Jean condescends to her about helping out “when she pulls herself together.” When Annie does come to help, the narrator introduces her after her name as “the human” and then as “the enemy.” Xavier should be rolling in his grave.
It became clearer overtime that the X-Men fan base was more on the side of Magneto rather than Professor Xavier. “Never again, resist,” fists in the air revolutionary notions and this had bled over into the X-Men themselves. That’s not me. None of this is me. My parents love and accept me, I do trust in institutions and people in them to be just, much more than I’m normally willing to admit, because said parents gave me a safe and nurturing environment to come of age in. I’m grateful for what I have been blessed with that others don’t but because of these blessings I’m not a rebel. I have found no compelling reason to be. I don’t have an ax to grind with the world. Ideally I’d like to preserve what I believe is already good in it rather than tear it down and make something new.
Now granted much of what I’ve said above comes from someone who is not a die-hard X-Men fan so maybe the more radical ideas aren’t as endorsed by the readers as they are in the comics. And I don’t mean any of the above as criticism of the X-Men, their writers, or their readers. As I said in my article, there’s a superhero for everyone and if some people’s heroes are socially conscious revolutionaries, I would never hope to deny or shame them of their entertainment.
I merely wanted to express how my own advice came back to bite me in a way I never considered and how my appreciation for the X-Men as a franchise has morphed from near complete indifference to something of a morbid fascination. To see the possibility that I could be viscerally hated by someone based on where I plant my flag regardless of what I believe. And for that possibility to be revealed by, of all things, superhero comics.