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How the X-Men changed my life

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

When I was in sixth grade, the X-Men got me in trouble.

During recess, in the small, low-tech library of my private Catholic grade school, I was showing off my collection of X-Men trading cards — the entire 1992 Marvel Masterpiece set and the 1993 Series II Skybox collection— to some of my best friends. I had a whole binder of them, filled with pages of plastic grids.

I explained why Dazzler was really much cooler than Wolverine, because claws don't stand up to any kind of energy projection. And why Storm was a better leader than Cyclops, because she bested him in Uncanny X-Men No. 201, without any powers.

But during my pontificating, a puritanical snitch told the librarian I was showing off porn. In a hurricane of rage, she tried to snatch my binder full of cards out of my feeble little arms. The encounter is still burned into my brain.

I protested.

"It's not Playboy, Mrs. Deakers," I explained. Deakers had engaged me in a tug-of-war with the binder, an excellent strategy since she had a height and weight advantage. "I don't even like Playboy."

"Then what's this?" she said pointing at one of the cards. Her fingertip landed in the valley between the character's breasts.

The card in question. (Marvel)

"That's Psylocke. Her name is funny because 'Psyche' sounds like 'key,' get it?" I said.

Back then, puberty hadn't kicked in, and all I cared about was that Psylocke had a psychic blade and was one of the best hand-to-hand combatants in the Marvel universe. It hadn't occurred to me that her breasts might be seen as aggressively gratuitous.

"Alex. You can't have these. You can pick them up after school," Deakers said as she confiscated the binder. "And you can't bring them to school again."

Deakers made good on her word and returned my cards after school, but the damage had already been done.

That year, I was probably the only child to get in trouble in the Sts. Simon and Jude library during recess, but it only furthered my love for the X-Men. Decades removed from that incident, I'm starting to see why that love has never waned.

The X-Men cartoon was my gateway drug

In the '90s, right around the time of my library conflict, the X-Men were the kings and queens of the comic book industry.

They were created in 1963, but their Gen-X dominance didn't just happen overnight.

Much of it should be credited to writer Chris Claremont, who took over writing the X-Men in 1975, and artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne. Byrne, a writer and an artist, began drawing the mutants in 1977.

Byrne was arguably the top artist of the time — his layouts were palatial and spacious, his lines clean and crisp. And when he paired up with Claremont, they created magic that manifested itself in stories like the "Dark Phoenix Saga" and "Days of Future Past" and transformed X-Men into one of the most gorgeous books of the era.

X-Men. (Marvel)

I wasn't even a zygote when Claremont and Byrne were at the top of their game. But two days after my 10th birthday, in 1992, the X-Men animated series premiered on Fox. I found Claremont and Byrne's stories when they came to life in a Saturday morning cartoon.

It was my introduction to a group of people I'd feel close to for the rest of my life.

One would wail at nature and send thunder and lightning into battle. Another could change his appearance with about as much effort as it takes to exhale. Still another could create force fields to protect her friends.

I was hooked.

No two X-Men sounded the same, looked the same, or had the same set of powers. From Gambit's smarmy "Creole" accent to Rogue's Southern drawl, from Storm's stark white hair to Jean Grey's red locks, from Wolverine's adamantium claws to Cyclops's optic beam, the X-Men didn't look like the kind of people we were supposed to admire. They certainly didn't seem like the kind of people who save the day.

Yet in each episode they did just that.

The cartoon wasn't perfect, but it kept the spirit of Claremont and Byrne's vision: that these imperfect people were a family that chose to be together. Even though they had magnificent powers, they were all lost without each other.

The X-Men needed each other as much as the world needed them.

To the average outsider, I was nothing like any of the X-Men. Unlike Jubilee, I got good grades and wasn't really a rebellious tween. Unlike Wolverine, I had friends and didn't really get into fights. And my family, unlike Rogue's, loved me a lot.

But underneath all that, I was a kid struggling with stuff I couldn't fully comprehend at the time.

In 1990, my parents moved from Northridge, California, and its racially diverse community, to Huntington Beach, and I transferred from a school full of kids with brown skin and last names stacked with extra syllables to a school that was predominantly white. I was also the first kid (the joy of being the oldest) that my parents, immigrants from the Philippines, were putting through school.

The move was a learning experience for both my parents and me.

I didn't really know it at the time, because no one ever talks to kids about assimilation or representation (or at least they didn't back then), but I quickly learned how to shrink whenever a teacher would muddle through my last name, or correct me when I'd pronounce a word like my parents would pronounce it at home. Feeling different felt wrong. Due to a simple misunderstanding, I once had a terrible experience with glue sticks.

For my parents, it must've been hard to see a kid struggle and not know why. But I also remember not being able to fully process that I felt alone.

Growing up with the feeling of being left out can seem trivial. Kids can be equal-opportunity assholes. And no doubt, it would have been a lot easier to figure things out and fit in if the internet had been around.

But when you don't see people like you reflected in your life (save for your family) or pop culture, you begin to feel as if it's your mistake, and you develop a constant need to adjust for it.

At 10, I probably couldn't explain why I loved the X-Men so much. But after watching the cartoon, I began collecting the trading cards and asking my mom to drop me off at the comic shop in the strip mall by my house.

In hindsight, it's easy to see what they offered to a kid who didn't see himself anywhere: a safe world where people were so different —weird, even — that you didn't have to compensate for being yourself.

The X-Men story that changed my life

It's no surprise that superheroes have repeatedly become popular figures after wars or in dire times like the Great Depression. And today, on the big screen, many superhero films still reflect the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Superheroes are, at their core, designed to teach us about life, goodness, and faith in humanity.

Spider-Man preaches about how "with great power comes great responsibility." Green Lantern recites an oath promising to eliminate evil: "In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight." And heroes like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and the Avengers each, in their own way, teach us about the preciousness and fragility of life around us.

The X-Men are no exception.

I often tell people (well, everyone but my mother, because it would break her heart) that the X-Men taught me as much about morality and humanity as my years in Catholic grade school, the masses I attended every Sunday growing up, the process of Confirmation, and my four years at a Catholic university.

Some of that is probably due to my attention span as a kid.

I remember daydreaming about the Phoenix during my priest's sermons or imagining what would happen if I had the telekinesis to lift the church piano off the stage. I was a bad influence on my little brother — my parents had a tradition of making three wishes every time we heard mass at a new church, and he spent his childhood wishing for mutant abilities like invisibility or teleportation.

But nothing — no sermon, no superhero story — hit me as hard as Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson's God Loves, Man Kills, a 1982 X-Men graphic novel.

In God Loves, Man Kills, the X-Men take on a man named Rev. William Stryker. If that name sounds familiar, it's because Bryan Singer's 2003 film X2 — in my opinion, the best X-Men film ever made — borrowed a lot from God Loves, including its main villain. But for as good as that film was, the original story was so much more cinematically brutal and helplessly human than what we saw onscreen.

God Loves, Man Kills isn't a traditional superhero brawl. There is no big bad. The X-Men's superpowers are used sporadically. It's more of a domestic or political drama than a mutant melee.

The plot revolves around Stryker and his "Purifiers," who are launching a double-sided attack on Charles Xavier and mutants around the world. Stryker is charismatic and makes TV appearances to talk about the mutant scourge, while his Purifiers are — well, the book starts off with a hate crime:

God Loves, Man Kills. (Marvel)

The X-Men are often referred to as allegories or reflections of LGBTQ people or racial minorities. That's largely because of their atypical looks and their origin stories — mutant powers surface at puberty, not unlike sexual orientation. But what Claremont and Anderson do so well in God Loves is personalize and crystallize the hate, fear, and pain that humans are capable of inflicting on one another. They also show how hard it is to understand the harm those feelings can lead to, let alone fight it.

Early in the story, Kitty Pryde brawls with a man who believes in Stryker's crusade. A black woman named Stevie Hunter breaks up the fight, letting the man run off and leaving Kitty with a heart full of anger and steam. Kitty retaliates on Stevie, dropping the n-word in the process:

God Loves, Man Kills. (Marvel)

Kitty's reaction is brash. She's painted as a bit immature. But Claremont and Anderson get at this idea of how hard it is to convey, from one human to another, the anguish that comes with being hated for something you can't control. And Stevie doesn't ever get to tell Kitty that she understands what that hate feels like:

God Loves, Man Kills. (Marvel)

Stryker, who Claremont says was modeled after Jerry Falwell and his rise in popularity, is entrenched in his faith and believes that mutants don't deserve a place in this world. And because Stryker is so fully committed to his cause, people begin to rally behind him. His charisma and appeal has members of the X-Men shaken:

God Loves, Man Kills. (Marvel)

The X-Men, save for Nightcrawler, aren't really religious. That fits well with Claremont's plan to set a conflict between religion and morality, and the notion that the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, nor does one beget the other.

"I became fascinated by the conflict and, just to make sure I knew what I was talking about, sat down and started reading the Bible, and made liner notes all the way through it front to back," Claremont told the site Christ, Coffee, and Comics. "I started watching more sermons than I care to think about now, to find how this would all work out."

The story begins with Professor X — who has the power to take over people's minds, a gift that could be really helpful in this certain scenario full of people who need their minds changed — taken prisoner and mutants under attack. There's some pew-pewing going on behind the scenes, but most of the "action" consists of long dialogues that take place in settings like debates and on television, for the public to see.

Claremont and Anderson make clear that Stryker's persuasiveness and conviction to his cause are his biggest weapons. And the book ends with a standoff between the X-Men, Stryker, and the public:

God Loves, Man Kills. (Marvel)

Reading God Loves again today can, at times, feel like looking at a piece of history rather than art. Claremont and Anderson's work feels like a cry of pain and frustration — a fearsome warning regarding the way they felt the US was headed. But with talk about a giant wall to keep out Mexicans, and bans on Muslims, God Loves still resonates.

The X-Men don't win in this story. There's no retribution for the kids killed in the opening hate crime. The world doesn't shift or change because the X-Men stand up to Stryker. And even though the X-Men show that they're the better people, they know full well that being good isn't enough to change people's hearts:

God Loves, Man Kills. (Marvel)

The brutality of God Loves was a shock to me, and to the idea that good conquers all.

It's easier to imagine everyone as good, but Claremont and Anderson show that it isn't wrong to acknowledge the bad in this world. That hate isn't ingrained into human nature, but human nature sometimes can't help but be drawn to it.

The lesson the X-Men were learning, in their blue skins and metal muscles, wasn't much different from the stuff I learned from the 12 men in robes and sandals in Catholic school. But Nightcrawler's indomitable faith in humanity and his goodness were much simpler, more touching to me than a letter to the Corinthians.

The X-Men showed me the kind of person I wanted to be and that I wanted to act like.

I distinctly remember feeling heartbroken over God Loves, Man Kills' grim message that you ultimately can't get rid of the kind of hate Stryker represents. However, the comic also conveyed a sense of empathy and hope — that even though the X-Men were stuck in this world, I wasn't. And it was up to all of us to make sure the real world never got to that point.

Why I'll always love the X-Men

When comic book fans share their comics with other people, it's a fragile, precious thing. Physically, it's an exchange with another person who has proven herself a trustworthy enough friend that she will bring it back unharmed and unscathed. But when you dig deeper, the ritual becomes more complex.

If I offer you a copy of The Wicked + The Divine, it's because I think we could talk about David Bowie and our dreams of being raven-commanding goths like Morrigan. When I bring you a copy of Jonesy, I think we could probably laugh at monkey videos together. And if I share Secret Wars or Multiversity with you, I probably think you're the smartest person I know and need help deciphering what the fuck I just read.

There's always a moment of worry that the comic books I lend out won't be loved the way I love them. That fear, I think, is rooted in the fact that comics are one way I show someone how I see them.

With the X-Men, it's the opposite — they're how I see myself. And it's probably the reason I don't lend out those comics with the same frequency.

The X-Men have always let me imagine myself in a way I wasn't always bold enough to. I learned about the cruelty of the Legacy Virus (Uncanny X-Men No. 303) long before I could talk about the millions of people, including the generations of gay men who came before me, killed by the AIDS epidemic. And I learned to talk about the emotional toil of Storm being called a goddess in Africa and a rotten mutant in America long before I learned about representation and assimilation.

Every day, the X-Men show up to fight for a world that would rather they not exist.

Their story is about survival, not only as an act of living from one day to the next but also as a form of love or even defiance — a faith that there's something better than the world they've been given, and that they can achieve it by existing.

In the eyes of a kid who got in massive trouble for loving them in sixth grade and who's now a grown man still reading them today, they were (and still are) everything I needed them to be, even at times when I didn't know it.


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