Thursday, May 26, 2016

X-Men is My Star Wars

Star Wars or Star Trek? My answer is X-Men. Because I grew up with them, I like my SciFi Extra-Special-Implausible. Not growing up with Star Wars, I confess to never “getting it.” When the Prequels landed, I was unfazed. They were just another trilogy about a Mary Sue with his cast of not-as-special-people who were important because he knew them. They weren’t as well made, but they were clearly the same model. Today, the greatest thing about Force Awakens is watching other people get so much out of it.

I told you that to tell you about ADD. In my lifetime ADD became ADHD, then became a "myth," a thing doctors made up for money, or lazy people made up as excuses. The current scorn for its sufferers is garbage. I have it, and have since childhood - the same week I received medication, my grades skyrocketed. Even then I struggled with reading. Superhero comics, with their mixture of art and the written word, were a huge part of introducing me to the desire for literacy. Here, nothing was more invigorating than X-Men comics, and particularly Wolverine.

So half my readers just closed this article because, ugh, another Wolverine fan right?

The rest of you: hold on for four more sentences.

Because he became particularly meaningful to me at Age 13, when medical malpractice put me in full-body pain for the rest of my life. As opposed to Superman’s invincible skin or Batman’s eternal dodging reflexes, Wolverine feels every blow. He’s shot, stabbed, even eviscerated, and the good artists captured that the pain registered on his face. He could survive anything, but only win by powering through the pain.

I cannot exaggerate the number of times I imagined Wolverine as I fought to stand up, or coughed up blood, or staggered my way through another impossibly painful day of school. Good old Wolvie.

Pictured: Wolverine getting beat up by Squirrel Girl.
“Wolvie” is the code word for what’s great about the X-Men, an annoying nickname put on him by his shockingly long list of unofficially adopted daughters. Even in Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie, Wolverine begins as misanthrope suffering from PTSD, subjecting himself to fights just to eat, living in immortal nihilism. It’s so grim that Rogue, a runaway teenager, realizes she doesn’t have such a bad life just by sitting in his truck for a minute. Over the course of the film the two of them bond more profoundly than any two characters in any superhero film since, and ultimately he lets her drink his life just so she’ll draw another breath. It’s a giving thing.

The X-Men are a family, and the linchpin to entry isn’t being an amazing individual, but someone who cares about other members of the group. Gambit keeps coming back because of an attraction to Rogue. Despite the presence of famous leaders, Storm keeps finding the team in need of better leadership and returns to the role. Xavier founded his school on the principle of wanting a safe place for these people to grow. Because of the serial nature of both the comics and 90’s TV show, they were able to flesh out dozens of backstories. There is no one true core X-Men team the way there is a core Enterprise crew or Star Wars cast. The family is always rotating with who needs to grow, and who can help foster it.

Put another way: the leader, the most powerful X-Man, and the most popular X-Man are never same person in a given story. It’s intrinsic to the woefully overplayed Cyclops/Jean/Wolverine love triangle. The prototypical X-Men story is that someone in the found family has a problem, and the family tries to adapt to it. If Gambit broods his way back to the Bayou, then Jubilee and Storm probably shadow him to make sure he doesn’t self-destruct or suffer alone. But Jean Grey isn’t damseled in The Dark Phoenix Saga; the story hinges on who she’s developing into while the family tries to move heaven to help her.

The wide diversity of cast enabled a wide diversity of representation. We can talk about how for most of its history, Marvel’s  most famous women were all X-Men, or how lamentably Magneto remains the most recognizable Jewish character in superhero comics.  The X-Men was the first franchise where I could take disabled characters *for granted*. There was a phase when I needed the mental idea of Wolverine to survive the day, or the flippancy of Nightcralwer in the face of social norms. And then there was 2014.

2014 was the worst year of my adult life. My body began rejecting medications I’d relied on for a decade, and gradually I was no longer able to mentor the disabled teens who’d relied on me. As pain grew even worse, I lost contact with friends, and increasingly dreaded people didn’t want or need me anymore. I saw Winter Soldier and had a good time, but immediately shrugged it off.

Then there was Days of Future Past, where a young Xavier wallowed in a stupor of drugs and self-pity. He was in desperate need of guidance, but there was no one for him. Wolverine traveled back in time to kick him in the ass, and true to so many stories, it turned out he wasn’t the main character or the man for the job. Xavier’s future self finally reached out, and their minds touched across time, the future Xavier revealing that the young one could become the person he needed, not just for himself, but for so many people suffering like him.

Pictured: Hope.

I can’t tell my past self that it can get better, and that I can both help myself, and resume helping others. Fiction can, though. It was reassurance I didn’t even know I needed. It was also the sort of depth that the Marvel Cinematic Universe never strives for. If Marvel made Days of Future Past, Xavier would keep chasing Mystique, insisting on fixing her, and punching all the bad guys between them. She’d probably be in a freezer right now. Marvel’s movies are fun, but they don’t help people like me.

One reason I’ve slowed down reading Marvel Comics is they’ve begun literal erasure. They have formal editorial rules that no new Mutants can be created, they’ve slashed the number of X-Men books, killed major characters (most notably Wolverine, Jean Grey, and Professor X), and in-canon established that all Mutants are now sterile and can’t reproduce. It’s a transparent backlash against Fox for keeping the movie rights.

Angry as I want to be, the X-Men have become less relevant to diversity in superhero fiction. Remember when I said the most notable women in Marvel were once all X-Men? Now the mantle of Thor now belongs to a woman. The new Ms. Marvel is Muslim, defending her part of New Jersey with stretchy powers. The totally-awesome new Hulk is Korean-American (Amadeus Cho would be great with his own movie, by the way).

Pictured: Progress.
You don’t need to create a new X-Man to talk about minority experiences in the Marvel Universe because, finally, they’re willing to make other significant characters in that universe be minorities. Marvel’s main roster is more diverse now, and that’s great. Rather than requiring a metaphor for marginalized people, now more are actively appearing. This is general progress.

The X-Men are no less relevant in superhero film, though. X-Men: Apocalypse marks the debut of Lana Condor as Jubilee, an Asian American superhero who can summon fireworks from her fingers. That makes one more Asian American superhero than all of Marvel’s current movies combined. There were leaks suggesting Fox’s New Mutants film will feature Mirage and Sunspot – who would be the first Native American and Brazilian superheroes in U.S. film, if they aren’t whitewashed. We don’t expect whitewashing there because Fox’s movies have already delivered characters who were black (Storm,  Bishop, and Darwin), Jewish (Magneto), Asian (Deathstryke), blind (Al), and bisexual (Deadpool).

Please keep clamoring for Marvel to make Kamala Khan, America Chavez, and Amadeus Cho movies. They’re great characters that would make for exceptionally fun movies.

Personally I'd jump quickest at a Mystique-led movie about the Brotherhood, but that's because this thing is my Star Wars. We haven't even gotten to Dust, or Legion, or Beast as the engineering genius he was always meant to be. Also, the freaking Savage Land. Did you know Marvel has a Jurassic Park in Antarctica?


  1. Those stories and characters got you through. I think superhero comics had a way of helping us deal with our own issues.
    I'm a DC guy, so it was JLA and Teen Titans for me.
    Deadpool is bisexual? I must've missed that...

    1. The help is one of the best things the fiction-of-metaphors can do for us. Though as far as Deadpool's sexuality, he's got a history of dude-love in the comics, and even Reynolds has said his character swings both ways in the movieverse.

  2. I've never understood the fuss about Star Wars though I've always enjoyed them. The X-Men comics were the thing for me when I was a kid too, and so were the cartoon. How can you not love Wolverine? (plus he's Canadian)

    1. Talk about bucking some Canadian stereotypes. Good old Wolvie.

  3. Great post! I do love Star Wars, but X-Men is definitely high up on my list. That's amazing how it helped you get through hard times.

  4. Anything which helps any of us through the dark days (and darker nights) has to be a good thing.
    I wasn't exposed to Star Trek, Star Wars or the X-Men early so they don't do it for me - but I do respect their power.

  5. I've honestly never kept up with any brand of comics consistently, but I love that X-Men got you through so many tough times. I also like the idea of a new character taking on the role of the Hulk, what kind of character is Amadeus? Also, you forgot to mention that the Thing is also Jewish. ;)


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