Dear X-Men… It’s Not You, It’s Me

I’ve been putting off writing this column for a while now.  When I first heard we were doing an X-Men week here at Sequart, I wasn’t too worried.  After all, I’ve got a shelf full of famous X-Men stories, most of which I’ve enjoyed.  But every time I tried to write about something X-related, I froze.  That’s when I finally figured out the problem.

I don’t really like the X-Men very much.

Let me clarify.  I don’t hate the X-Men—not at all.  What’s more, I don’t think there’s some flaw to the X-Men as a concept, and I’m not about to launch into a several-paragraphs-long explanation of what’s wrong with them.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them.  It’s just that for some reason, as a reader, on a personal level, I’ve never made the same connection with them that I’ve made with many other comics characters.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t generally understand the appeal, at least intellectually.  The X-Men stories focus on diversity and fighting prejudice, they tap into the best traditions of both science fiction and superhero stories, and the team represents the counter-culture.  They’re misfits, outsiders, superhero hipsters, and alternative rock stars.  They’re James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause.  In short, they’re everything I ought to like.

And yet, what’s missing for me is that mysterious, magical, personal connection that keeps drawing people back for more.  I’ve never had that with the X-Men.  I recently watched Sequart’s newly-released documentary about Chris Claremont, the most influential X-Men writer of them all.  There’s a moment near the end of the film where Claremont describes an encounter with a long-time reader, a Mormon woman, whose husband didn’t want her to read the books anymore.  As Claremont described this woman’s profound sense of loss, I think I realized that I was never going to be able to fake my way through this column with some intellectual platitudes and clichés.

Instead, what I wanted to do was try to explore the passion for the X-Men that so many other people have—people like the woman Claremont describes in the film.  So I went on a “listening tour” of sorts and asked people—most of whom weren’t regular comics readers—what they liked or what connected them to the X-Men.  One of the first and most eager to talk was “Courtney,” a former college student of mine, who was able to vividly describe what the characters meant to her:

Do you want the CliffsNotes version or the full spiel about how discovering the X-Men at age five and identifying with Rogue, as a child who often felt friendless and isolated, helped me to deal with my own internal struggles through many of my formative years?  Xavier’s School was my Hogwarts. The idea that someone who feels like they don’t fit in can suddenly find a place where they belong and where the things once considered faults can be praised as what makes them special and unique.  All of the X-Men are from very different backgrounds, but they all know what it feels like to be an outsider or to feel different from everyone else.  Xavier looked at them all and said, “You’re not a freak, you’re something special. You can change the world.”  And what kid doesn’t want to believe that?

Like “Courtney,” many of the people I heard from talked about that concept of belonging.  “Alicia,” a colleague, also mentioned “the sense of family,” and “Sean,” a minister, put it in terms that could just as easily apply to a religious body:  “What has always impressed me is the sense of community and existence within the group. They rely upon one another and use each person’s unique talents and abilities. There’s no sense of judgment, but rather openness and acceptance.”

But the X-Men also appeal to some because they carry with them a sense of the subversive and the dangerous.  According to “Mitchell,” a former-student-turned-teacher, “What society sees as faults in each character, mutations, those are actually what makes them unique and powerful.”

Of the people I heard from, “Jeremiah,” a teacher and fellow writer, was probably the biggest comics fan, and he gravitated towards something that differentiates the X-Men from most other superheroes:  “No ridiculous origin story. ‘Born this way’ is a beautiful, simple thing.”  And he’s right.  There are no exploding planets, bloody alleyways, chemical spills, or spider bites.  It’s almost like the X-Men represent a second generation of superheroes, one that no longer needs to explain itself or apologize to anyone.

Strangely enough, even though I’m the only regular comics reader in my home, the other three family members all count themselves as X-Men enthusiasts.  When I asked my daughter, who finally got to watch the first feature film after years of re-watching the three animated series, she immediately hit on the reason the X-Men appealed so strongly to her:  “There are a lot more female characters that are prominent than in other shows.  They’re different from The Avengers who only have a couple of female characters.  The girls are more equal in the X-Men.”

And that focus on gender equality was the heart of my wife’s response as well, though her memories involve the actual comics rather than the cartoons:

My brother got comics, and I had tried to read a lot of them but I couldn’t get into them.  When I picked up an X-Men comic for the first time, I saw female characters and was able to instantly relate.  I was drawn to Storm.  I think it was because her power was epic.  It was bigger than everyone else’s.  I didn’t know enough at the time to connect it up with Mother Nature and the whole Earth Goddess tradition, but I knew it was different.  Wolverine had claws and a healing ability and Cyclops had glowing eyes, but Storm’s power was global.  She could command the weather just by saying a word and it was fascinating to see a female figure with that kind of power.

And they all seemed equal except for Professor X.  And even then, we have a man in a wheelchair.  He’s not a macho man with big muscles and strength that a girl could never obtain.  Instead, he’s using his brain.  And Jean is his “right-hand man” so to speak.

I couldn’t have used the word “egalitarian,” “equal,” or “feminist” at the time, but what happened to me after I read those comics was I could go outside and play and I could be Storm.  It was so empowering to see myself as Storm and to believe I had the capacity to do those things because there was no place else that was affirming to me, as a little girl, that I could do anything a boy could do.

Much like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, the X-Men comics have clearly helped open doors to more women readers than we could ever calculate.  Moreover, the concept of gender equality offers something important for boys as well.  My son recently asked why there were no women in the X-Men.  Now his question wasn’t sincere.  After all, he’s been devouring the three animated series for the past several weeks so he clearly knows better.  But even at his age, he sometimes likes to “play dumb” to be funny and make a point.  In this case, he went on to say that since the title is X-Men, with the emphasis on “men,” that must mean that there aren’t any girls.  Then, knowing he’d just made a “joke,” he smiled.

I smiled too.  I didn’t know they were teaching Derrida in the first grade.  But there he was, playfully deconstructing the title and pointing out the inherent discrepancy between it and the message of the show.  At his age, we haven’t talked very much about social or political issues, so I wondered what could have ever awakened this kind of sensitivity to sexist language and gender issues.

That’s when I realized, maybe I like the X-Men more than I thought.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


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