“The Uncanny X-Men offered me a path forward before I even knew I needed one; each of them had to come to terms with the fact that their supposed curse was a blessing.”

Our bikes dropped on the front yard, more dirt than grass, as we bolted onto the sagging porch to rifle through my best friend’s comic book collection. We were in elementary school but old enough to have some freedoms and bold enough to taste and test their boundaries: one was riding our bikes to the limit (the limit being major highways), the other getting our hands on any comics we could find. This trip was special because it was my first sampling of another’s accumulated knowledge. We were building personal libraries, developing truths and secrets and my friend was about to share one of his: a dog-eared issue of The Uncanny X-Men, issue 120. Their plane crashes in Canada. Aliens in a hostile land, their complexities share the same genesis: they were born this way.

-Introduction, The Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy!

They were a disparate group, hunted, defamed, yet powerful. The X-Men were uncanny, colorful yet dark, different yet often able to “pass,” offering a new mythology of thrilling personal exploration. These mutants, banded together under the wisdom of the telepathic Professor X, scoured the globe, seeking out others of their kind to offer them a safe place in a hostile world.

Needless to say, I devoured every issue.

I haunted comic book shops. Every car trip was an opportunity to search small town bookstores for back issues and appearances in other Marvel titles. These were pre-sexual readings. On the most primal level I identified with the politics of otherness. I never lusted after the practically shirtless Colossus, or the pointy-eared, blue-skinned, be-tailed Nightcrawler, his teleportation leaving behind a sulfuric residue. In early issues of the regenerated X-Men (Professor X had put together a team in the 60s that was reinvented in the 70s –with an exceptional run written by Chris Claremont and stunningly illustrated by John Byrne), Nightcrawler initially disguised himself with a hologram of normalcy, but this contrivance was soon discarded. Some of us just can’t hide.

I stayed with the series through my teens. I drew my own characters, imagining their powers, devising back stories, pitting them again enraged foes. And as I matured, the X-Men transformed as well. New members appeared, like the teen Kitty Pryde, who could walk through walls and was always changing her costume. Later on the butch, untouchable Rouge joined, leaving The Brotherhood of Mutants to seek Professor X’s help. The Brotherhood represented those mutants who felt that humanity was irredeemable, led by Magneto, a concentration camp survivor. This was the 80s and I was growing up in Florida, with fruit trees in the yard, Reagan on TV, powdery beaches a quick bike-ride away. And when it became known that two hemophiliac boys in the next town had contracted HIV, someone set their house on fire.

*

I don’t read comics much anymore, but last summer I wandered into a comic book shop in Park Slope, to see if I could score a copy of the issue of Astonishing X-Men in which North Star gets married. North Star is a French-Canadian hero from Alpha Flight (This team of heroes also made its debut in issue 120 of the X-Men). He is the first gay character in Marvel Comics, his homosexuality a hard-fought battle won by now-writer John NSmarriage (1)Byrne. The young men behind the shop counter told me that the issue wasn’t out yet but proudly handed me an invitation to the wedding: a glossy postcard celebrating a gay, interracial marriage cheered on by a vast number of super heroes. I could tell the guys at the comic book store were straight, and that they actually relished this moment –they not only recognized that this was a wonderful, progressive event in the comic book world, but that they, too, were a part of it.

I have enjoyed, to varying degrees, the X-Men movies, and I was thrilled that the gay director of the first two films, Bryan Singer, highlighted the queer sensibilities. In the second film, when the young Iceman comes out to his family, his mother responds, “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?” Fans love to take turns bashing the less satisfying third film, directed by Brett Ratner, (who lost a chance at producing the 2011 Oscars after stating that “rehearsals are for fags”) yet his X-Men included a memorable scene in which a youthful version of Angel, rather than sacrifice his wings for normalcy, dives out a high rise window and soars through the sky.

In my own writing I’ve often revisited the themes I first discovered in the X-Men, and have written short stories featuring mutants and super heroes. And as part of my contrary nature, with a flip of my imaginary cape to Magneto, I have also written stories that feature gay villains. Expanding on this theme, I edited a collection of stories, The Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy! – to be published later this summer by Northwest Press, wherein I invited queer comic book artists and speculative fiction writers to deliver their own dark tales.

The Uncanny X-Men offered me a path forward before I even knew I needed one; each of them had to come to terms with the fact that their supposed curse was a blessing.

Just like the rest of us.

 

 

Images via Marvel Comics 



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2 Responses to “The Perks of Being Uncanny: The Queer Aspects of the X-Men”

  1. Edmond 12 July 2013 at 10:10 AM #

    This article seems like the perfect place to share a fan letter that appeared in the back of an issue of the Uncanny X-men. I did not write this letter – I merely share the words:

    Dear X-Men Creators,

    Recently, my nineteen-year-old brother died, after a long battle with leukemia. He was quiet and kind. He was an honor student. He lived with my parents, and hardly left the house, except for a few classes at a college nearby. He read comic books. My parents were always concerned about him, fearing him to be anti-social. As he grew closer to death, I became increasingly aware that I never really knew him.

    Before he died, I tried to change that, at least for myself. I wanted to share with you something that I learned.

    After long, sad discussions, at home and the hospital, about how unhappy he was and how glad he was to “just die,” my brother finally told me days before he died that he was a homosexual – deeply in the closet, but homosexual nonetheless.

    He was ashamed. It was as if he was confessing a deep sin, needing some kind of absolution so he could die. Despite the other pain he was obviously feeling, I could see the suffering of self-loathing in his face; he hated himself because he was gay.

    I asked him if he ever loved anyone. He told me he couldn’t. I asked him what he meant by “couldn’t,” but he was unable to put it into any other words than “just couldn’t.” For the first time, I saw my brilliant little brother paralyzed by fear. Of what he was really afraid, I don’t know. Maybe he was afraid of being hated by my parents, burning in Hell, being teased by society or just losing the few friends he had.

    For reasons I can’t remember, he told me that his sexual orientation was one of the reasons he had always liked the X-Men – because they were mutants, hated and feared by society for just being what they were. I asked him which characters were gay, thinking that after he was gone, maybe I’d learn about my brother through them. He said he didn’t know of any gay characters in the X-Men. It didn’t matter to him, he said. I could see why. He was the blue-furred Beast that people glared at. He was Rogue, afraid to touch other people. He even told me that he was Iceman, bragging to his friends about women that he lusted after, but really insecure deep down inside.

    Now that he’s gone, I have his comic books. I don’t know enough about comics to know if there are any homosexual characters or stories about homosexuality out there, so I can’t tell you how rare I think your work is. I do know that in the few issues of your magazine that I’ve read that you’ve had courage enough to stand up for gay rights, at a time when no amount of political correctness would compel you to do so. I’ve seen your sympathy for AIDS victims with your Legacy Virus stories. I’ve seen letters from gay people expressing how important your book is to them.

    I’ve also seen letters from bigots masquerading their hatred as social science, when science is clearly crying out to society to recognize that sexual orientation is beyond one’s control. I also see hatred on the faces of mutant-haters in your book, as scary as that which we see on the faces of homophobes in our world. I also see now that there are thousands of gay people in this world who must be suffering like my brother was; the suicides alone should be evidence of that.

    Given that suffering, I know that my brother’s homosexuality was not his choice. I never consciously chose to be attracted to men. I can’t believe that my brother did either, not with the pain he was going through. He was a mutant. And like the mutants in your world, he needed someone to stand up and show the world that his people are good and caring and most of all – human beings.

    Maybe “mutants” adequately embody all the difference of humankind to get the point across symbolically. I just know that if my brother had seen someone act out of courage and stand proud, because of, or rather despite the fact that he was homosexual, then maybe his life would have been happy. Maybe he would have fought for life rather than resigned himself to death. Instead he lived in torment. He never felt that it was okay to be homosexual. Let’s say it for what it was: he never thought it was okay to love the way his heart told him to. I do know in my heart that he felt you understood some of what he was going through. I thank you for that understanding, and I thank you for listening. Be proud of yourselves. You’re sending out an important message.

    Best wishes.

    A sister who misses her brother.


  2. Tom Cardamone 15 August 2013 at 3:49 PM #

    Edmond- thanks for sharing this fantastic letter!



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